Iowa governor signs one of the most dangerous rollbacks of child labor laws in the country: 14 states have now introduced bills putting children at risk

Updated June 23, 2023

In a March 14 report, we documented how states across the country are attempting to weaken child labor protections, just as violations of these standards are on the rise. The trend reflects a coordinated multi-industry push to expand employer access to low-wage labor and weaken state child labor laws in ways that contradict federal protections. And the recent uptick in state legislative activity is linked to longer-term industry-backed goals to rewrite federal child labor laws and other worker protections for the whole country.

Last Friday, this concerted attack on child labor safeguards further expanded. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed an expansive bill enacting numerous changes to the state’s child labor laws, including:

  • allowing employers to hire teens as young as 14 for previously prohibited hazardous jobs in industrial laundries or as young as 15 in light assembly work;
  • allowing state agencies to waive restrictions on hazardous work for 16–17-year-olds in a long list of dangerous occupations, including demolition, roofing, excavation, and power-driven machine operation;
  • extending hours to allow teens as young as 14 to work six-hour nightly shifts during the school year;
  • allowing restaurants to have teens as young as 16 serve alcohol; and
  • limiting state agencies’ ability to impose penalties for future employer violations.

Multiple provisions in the new state law conflict with federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) prohibitions on “oppressive child labor” involving hazardous conditions or excessive hours that interfere with teens’ schooling or health and well-being.

In Arkansas, Governor Sarah Sanders signed a law in March that eliminated youth work permits. Under the law, 14- and 15-year-olds will no longer need an employment certificate from the state Division of Labor verifying proof of their age and parental consent to work.

At a moment when exploitative child labor is on the rise, such changes are dangerous, removing an important paper trail intended to provide “proof that the companies that hire children at least acknowledge—in writing—that they’re following the law.”

In intervening weeks, the U.S. Department of Labor has cited employers for hundreds more serious child labor violations, while additional state legislatures have advanced proposals to weaken child labor standards.

This post provides updated analysis of state child labor legislation enacted or proposed so far in 2023.

Iowa’s extreme new child labor law violates federal prohibitions on hazardous occupations and excessive work hours

Iowa labor unions and their allies organized significant opposition to weakening the state’s child labor laws, compelling lawmakers to remove some of the original bill’s most egregious proposals—including language allowing teens to work in some areas of meatpacking plants and granting employers blanket immunity from liability for deaths or injuries caused by negligence while employing teens in “work-based learning programs.”

Yet even after several amendments, the final bill (passed with only Republican support) remains one of the most dangerous rollbacks of child labor protections in decades.

Many aspects of the newly enacted Iowa law contradict federal child labor law. In a May 10 letter to Iowa lawmakers, U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) Solicitor of Labor Seema Nanda and Wage and Hour Division Principal Deputy Administrator Jessica Looman clarify that “the FLSA establishes federal standards with respect to child labor, and states cannot nullify federal requirements by enacting less protective standards.”

Because most employment situations are covered by the FLSA, employers who follow weaker new state rules in Iowa will be violating federal child labor law. Enforcing federal standards that the state no longer maintains will, however, now be solely up to the federal government.

In their letter, Nanda and Looman report that “the Department currently has over 600 child labor investigations underway nationwide, including in Iowa” and detail the ways in which Iowa’s proposed bill (most of which has now been enacted) contradicts prohibitions on hazardous work or excessive work hours considered “oppressive” forms of child labor under federal law.

Federal law generally prohibits the employment of children in hazardous occupations. The new Iowa law allows several forms of hazardous child labor that are expressly prohibited under DOL regulations on work permitted for 14–15-year-olds or are banned for all youth under 18 under “Hazardous Occupations Orders” (HOs). These are specific types of work the DOL prohibits based on National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health findings that certain jobs have proven particularly dangerous for teens.

Table 1 summarizes the areas in which the new Iowa state law contradicts federal laws designed to prevent hazardous child labor.

Table 1

Iowa’s new law removes state prohibition on hazardous child labor, directly contradicting federal law

Previously prohibited hazardous work Federal standard (and previous Iowa state standard) Age at which new Iowa law allows hazardous work
Laundering using machines with capacity of 10 or more cubic feet or designed to reach internal temperatures over 212 degrees Fahrenheit Not permitted for 14 or 15-year-olds (29 CFR 570.34) 14
Loading and unloading equipment into motor vehicles including:

  • Equipment or retail items weighing up to 30–50 lbs.
  • Power-driven lawn machines
Prohibited as hazardous if under 16 (29 CFR 570.33(k) and 570.34(k)) 15, with a waiver from state agency
Light assembly work Prohibited as hazardous if under 16 (29 CFR 570.33) 15, with a waiver from state agency
Light assembly work in or about facilities manufacturing or storing explosives or articles containing explosive elements Prohibited as hazardous if under 18 (HO 1) 16
Commercial motor vehicle driver and helper Prohibited as hazardous if under 18 (HO 2) 16
Previously prohibited hazardous work allowed in new Iowa law if approved as a “work-based learning” or “school or employer-administered, work-related program” at the discretion of state agencies Federal standard (and previous Iowa state standard) Age at which new Iowa law allows hazardous work
Operation of power-driven woodworking machines Prohibited as hazardous if under 18 (HO 5)* 16, if approved by state agency
Operation of elevators and other power-driven hoisting apparatus Prohibited as hazardous if under 18 (HO 7) 16, if approved by state agency
Operation of power-driven metal forming, punching, and shearing machines Prohibited as hazardous if under 18 (HO 8)* 16, if approved by state agency
Operation of power-driven bakery machines Prohibited as hazardous if under 18 (HO 11) 16, if approved by state agency
Operation of power-driven paper products machines (e.g., balers and compactors) Prohibited as hazardous if under 18 (HO 12)*† 16, if approved by state agency
Manufacturing of brick, tile, and related products Prohibited as hazardous if under 18 (HO 13) 16, if approved by state agency
Operation of circular saws, band saws, and guillotine shears Prohibited as hazardous if under 18 (HO 14)* 16, if approved by state agency
Wrecking, demolition, and shipbreaking operations Prohibited as hazardous if under 18 (HO 15) 16, if approved by state agency
Roofing operations Prohibited as hazardous if under 18 (HO 16)* 16, if approved by state agency
Excavation Prohibited as hazardous if under 18 (HO 17)* 16, if approved by state agency

Notes: *Federal law allows 16–17-year-olds to perform certain types of intermittent work in these occupations only when enrolled in a bona fide registered apprenticeship program meeting certain stringent standards: 29 CFR 570.50(b)

†Federal law allows 16–17-year-olds to load (but not operate or unload) balers only if certain specific safety requirements are met: DOL Wage and Hour Division Fact Sheet #57

Source: EPI analysis of state and federal child labor laws.

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As summarized in Table 1, the new Iowa law permits employers to assign 16–17-year-olds to especially hazardous jobs as part of so-called “work-based learning” or “school or employer-administered, work-related programs” if approved by the Iowa Workforce Development or the Iowa Department of Education.

While DOL regulations provide some limited exceptions to certain hazardous occupations orders for apprentices and student learners who are ages 16 and over, the DOL’s recent letter makes clear that “to the extent that the ‘work-based learning’ program in the proposed legislation does not meet the requirements of the [DOL’s] regulations as described, the program would be prohibited by federal law for employers or children covered by the FLSA.” The ill-defined category of “work-based learning” in Iowa’s new law does not comply with the apprenticeship standards or oversight required to qualify for exceptions under federal law, which require that “the child must be enrolled in an approved program” (29 CFR 570.50) for which the state agency has been “granted approval by the [DOL]” for proposed exceptions (29 CFR 570.36, 29 CFR 570.37).

Lastly, the Iowa law allows for six-hour nightly shifts for 14–15-year-olds during the school year, exceeding limits under FLSA. The May 10 U.S. DOL letter confirms that the new Iowa law’s changes to hours allowed for teen work contradict federal law in two ways:

  • “First, 14- and 15-year-olds covered by the FLSA may only work between 7 am and 7 pm and only outside of school hours during the school year and may work from 7 am to 9 pm between June 1 and Labor Day.”
  • “Second, 14- and 15-year-olds may work no more than 3 hours on a school day, no more than 8 hours on a non-school day, no more than 18 hours/week during a week when school is in session, and for no more than 40 hours/week when school is not in session. To the extent that the proposed legislation allows 14- and 15-year-olds covered by the FLSA towork beyond or in excess of these permitted hours, the legislation would be inconsistent with theDepartment’s regulations.”

The Iowa law also places new limits on future state enforcement of child labor law, eliminating current state agency authority to require work permits for some teen jobs, mandating that state enforcers provide a 15-day grace period before imposing any civil penalty for employer violations of child labor law, and codifying that any such penalties may be waived or reduced at the discretion of the Director of Iowa Workforce Development.

The number of states introducing bills to roll back child labor protections continues to climb

In the past two years, at least 14 states have introduced bills to erode child labor standards (11 states introduced bills in 2023 alone). Eight have been signed into law so far. Table 2 provides a summary of state child labor legislation, updated to reflect recent legislative activity and additional bills identified after the publication of our March report.

Table 2

In the past two years, at least 14 states have introduced or passed laws rolling back child labor protections: State child labor legislation activity, 2021–2023

Bill Bill details Status Year Industry supporters
HB 1410 Eliminates age verification and parent/guardian permission requirements Enacted 2023 Opportunity Solutions Project (Foundation for Government Accountability)
HB 501 Eliminates work certificate requirement; lowers age for work in landscaping Introduced; withdrawn 2023  
SF 542 (formerly SF 167) Lifts restrictions on hazardous work; lowers age for alcohol service; extends work hours Enacted 2023 Americans for Prosperity; Fareway Stores, Inc.; Home Builders Association of Iowa; Iowa National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB); Iowa Farm Equipment Dealers Association; Iowa Association of Business and Industry (ABI); Iowa Hotel and Lodging Association; Iowa Restaurant Association; Iowa Travel Industry Partners; Opportunity Solutions Project (Foundation for Government Accountability)
HF 2198 Lowers minimum age of child care workers; increases staff-to-child ratios Enacted 2022 Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce
LD 1332 Subminimum wage for youth Introduced 2023  
LD 559 Extends work hours for some home-schooled youth during school year Introduced 2023 Maine Tourism Association; Maine Chamber of Commerce
HB 5696 and HB 5726 Lowers age to work at liquor stores Enacted 2022  
HB 4232 Lowers age to serve alcohol Enacted 2022  
SF 375 Lifts restrictions on hazardous work Introduced 2023  
SF 1102 Extends work hours Introduced 2023  
SB 175 Eliminates work certificate requirement for 16–17 year-olds Introduced 2023 Opportunity Solutions Project (Foundation for Government Accountability)
LB 15 Subminimum wage for youth Introduced 2023  
New Hampshire
SB 345 Lowers age to bus tables where alcohol is served; extends work hours Enacted 2022 New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association; New Hampshire Liquor Commission
New Jersey
A4222 Extends work hours; increases time before break Enacted 2022 New Jersey Chamber of Commerce; New Jersey Business and Industry Association
SB 30 Extends work hours Passed in the Senate 2023 Americans for Prosperity; Pickerington Area Chamber of Commerce; Ohio NFIB; Ohio Restaurant Association
South Dakota
HB 1180 Extends work hours Introduced; withdrawn 2023  
HB 1669 Subminimum wage for youth Introduced; failed in the House 2023  
SB 332 Extends work hours Passed in the House and Senate; vetoed by the governor 2021–2022 Wisconsin Grocers Association; Wisconsin Independent Businesses, Inc.; Wisconsin NFIB; Association of Wisconsin Tourism Attractions; Wisconsin Hotel and Lodging Association
AB 286 Lowers age to serve alcohol Introduced 2023  

Source: EPI analysis of state legislative activity and news related to child labor legislation.

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State child labor law changes are part of a broader, troubling agenda to boost corporate profits and increase economic desperation of low-income families and children

As documented in our earlier report, multiple business and industry lobby groups continue to support rolling back child labor laws in the interest of maintaining or expanding access to low-wage labor. Recent reporting has further emphasized the role of right-wing think tank Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) and its lobbying arm Opportunity Solutions Project in using funding from billionaire donors to accelerate state legislative action on child labor laws in 2023.

Dismantling child labor laws is just one prong of a broad agenda promoted by groups like FGA to: weaken and eventually demolish the role of government and public institutions (including public schools); reduce and privatize the provision of public services; and suppress the democratic process.

While FGA lobbies for the erosion of child labor protections in states like Arkansas, Iowa, and Missouri, they are simultaneously working to limit access to anti-poverty programs like SNAP and Medicaid, block expansion of Medicaid eligibility, and promote the defunding of public education through expansion of school vouchers in the same states. Taken together, FGA’s priorities represent a radical, multilayered assault on the same low-income families whose economically desperate children are most vulnerable to recruitment by unscrupulous employers for jobs involving long hours, low wages, and hazardous conditions that harm their education, health, and well-being.

As child labor violations continue to rise, there remains much for state and federal policymakers to do to strengthen the enforcement of existing laws and reform weak, outdated laws. They should start by eliminating the long-standing two-tiered system that exempts agricultural employers from most child labor laws and continues to allow widespread hazardous, low-wage labor for youth in agriculture, and by removing the legal options allowing employers to pay youth subminimum wages.

Teens in Virginia, for example, recently helped lead a successful campaign to block proposed legislation to allow employers to pay workers younger than 18 three dollars less than the state’s current minimum wage. 

Growing national attention to exploitative child labor this year has spurred some positive developments, including the introduction of several federal bills focused primarily on increasing penalties for violations. Federal agencies have also committed additional resources to coordinating enforcement and monitoring the sponsorship of unaccompanied migrant youth who may be vulnerable to employment in violation of child labor laws.

As states like Arkansas and Iowa weaken state-level protections and leave a greater share of enforcement up to federal agencies and workers themselves, addressing the child labor crisis will require nothing less than fully funding the Department of Labor, fixing our broken immigration system, and empowering workers of all ages to form unions.

Update June 23, 2023: Table 2 was revised to remove Missouri HB 188.