Delaney Patterson is a first-year student at the American University Washington College of Law. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in December 2022 where she majored in English with a concentration in social justice. During her time at UNC, she worked with death row exonerees and crime survivors at the Healing Justice Project.
The United States has a longstanding history of child labor laws. In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, one of the nation’s first major laws regulating child labor. More recently, variations of the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE Act) (2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, and 2013), Child Labor Protection Act of 2007, and Young American Workers’ Bill of Rights have been introduced to bolster national standards regarding the employment of minors. But in many ways, child labor has not been top of mind for many legislators – until recently. On May 26, 2023, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds (R) signed Senate File 542 into law, sparking contentious nationwide debates.
Senate File (SF) 542 allows teens to participate in work-based learning opportunities and aims to deregulate youth labor laws. However, SF 542 violates federal law in two major respects. First, SF 542 increases the number of hours minors may work. When school is in session, youths under sixteen may work up to six hours a day in Iowa. Total, these young workers may work a total of twenty-eight hours a week. But under federal law, fourteen and fifteen-year-olds may not work over three hours a day during school and only up to eighteen hours a week.  Additionally, Iowa expanded the work hours from federally regulated 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM. Hence, minors under sixteen in Iowa may work considerably more hours, extending later into the evening than permitted by the federal government on a school day.
Second, SF 542 lifts restrictions on the kinds of work minors may do. According to a letter from the U.S. Department of Labor responding to SF 542, Iowa’s new law allows fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds to engage in tasks not permitted by federal law, including working in a meat freezer and on assembly operations. Perhaps the most contentious provision of SF 542 is the amendment to Iowa’s statute allowing sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds to serve alcohol. Before SF 542, employees had to be at least eighteen years old to serve open-container alcohol. Opponents of the bill worry that these amendments will increase teens’ likelihood of experiencing harm in the workplace. In particular, they argue that minors who serve alcohol are at a higher risk of experiencing sexual misconduct.
Yet, despite these concerns, Iowa is not the only state looking to reform its child labor laws. In fact, Iowa’s bill follows the coattails of Arkansas’ Youth Hiring Act of 2023, which eliminated employment certification measures aimed at protecting minors under the age of sixteen. So far this year, one-quarter of state legislatures have introduced bills regarding the deregulation of child labor: Georgia (HB 501), Maine (LD 1332 and LD 559), Minnesota (SF 375 and SF 1102), Missouri (SB 175), Nebraska (LB 15), Ohio (SB 30), South Dakota (HB 1180), Virginia (HB 1669), Wisconsin (AB 286).
Proponents of expanding youth employment opportunities argue for “tailored, common sense labor provisions” for minors. Upon signing SF 542 into law, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds stated, “In Iowa, we understand there is dignity in work and we pride ourselves on our strong work ethic,” which are values she hopes to instill in the next generation of young adults. And yet, the presence of minors in the workplace often requires heightened regulations and measures to prevent children from being exploited, overworked, and out of school. Iowa Representative Jeff Cooling (D) expressed his concerns regarding SF 542 saying, “With active child investigations underway in Iowa, now is not the time to put more kids at risk in dangerous working environments (…) It’s bad for Iowa kids, parents, and local Iowa businesses who may get fined.”
Concerns surrounding child labor violations and laws have also captured the attention of Congress. A few weeks ago, U.S. Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i) and Todd Young (R-Indiana) introduced the Stop Child Labor Act, which would increase fines and institute criminal penalties for child labor law violations. Supporters of the bill want to mobilize state legislatures and employers to take proactive and preventative measures against exploitative employment practices. Proponents of the Stop Child Labor Act argue that, due to the 88 percent increase in child labor violations from 2019, current federal standards regarding youth employment are not stringent enough.
As the debate around child labor laws continues, allowing teens to pursue safe work opportunities free from exploitation remains top of mind. While states like Iowa are working to deregulate child labor laws, the introduction of the Stop Child Labor Act aims to heighten regulations nationally. As businesses and entities decide whether they will abide by state or federal regulations regarding youth employment, the road ahead concerning child labor laws remains uncertain.
 Nathaniel Ruby & Ross Eisenbrey, Celebrating 75 Years of the Fair Labor Standards Act, Economic Policy Institute (June 25, 2013, 12:51 PM) https://www.epi.org/blog/celebrating-75-years-fair-labor-standards/.
 Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE Act), H.R. 3482, 109th Cong. (2005); Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE Act), H.R. 2674, 110th Cong. (2007); Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE Act), H.R. 3564, 111th Cong. (2009); Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE Act), H.R. 2234, 112th Cong. (2011); Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE Act), H.R. 2342, 113th Cong. (2013); The Child Labor Protection Act of 2007, H.R. 2637, 110th Cong. (2007); Young American Workers’ Bill of Rights, H.R. 2870, 109th Cong. (2005).
 Chris Gilligan, Child Labor Violations on the Rise as States Look to Roll Back Laws, U.S. News (July 11, 2023, 3:07 PM) https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/articles/2023-07-11/child-labor-violations-on-the-rise-amid-state-efforts-to-ease-laws.
 S.F. 542, 90th Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Iowa 2023); Gilligan, supra note 3.
 Robin Opsahl, Reynolds Signs Law Loosening Iowa’s Child Labor Restrictions, Iowa Capital Dispatch (May 26, 2023, 6:00 PM), https://iowacapitaldispatch.com/2023/05/26/reynolds-signs-law-loosening-iowas-child-labor-restrictions/.
 Valeree Dunn, U.S. Dept. of Labor Review Finds Iowa’s Child Labor Bill Violates Federal Law, Iowa’s News Now (May 17, 2023, 4:26 PM), https://cbs2iowa.com/news/local/us-dept-of-labor-review-finds-iowas-child-labor-bill-violates-federal-law.
 Iowa Department of Inspections, Appeals, and Licensing, Child Labor [hereinafter Child Labor], https://www.iowadivisionoflabor.gov/child-labor#:~:text=Children%2016%20and%2017%20years,and%20hours%20they%20can%20work (last visited Oct. 21, 2023).
 OSHA Education Center, Child Labor Laws – Facts and Misconceptions [hereinafter Facts and Misconceptions], https://www.oshaeducationcenter.com/articles/child-labor-laws/ (last visited Oct. 21, 2023).
 Child Labor, supra note 8; Facts and Misconceptions, supra note 10.
 Opsahl, supra note 5.
 Katie Ervin Carlson & Joshua Hughes, What Employers Need to Know About Iowa’s New Child Labor Law, Dorsey & Whitney LLP (June 8, 2023) https://www.dorsey.com/newsresources/publications/client-alerts/2023/6/iowa-new-child-labor-law#:~:text=The%20new%20Iowa%20law%2C%20on,hours%20on%20a%20school%20da.
 Opsahl, supra note 5.
 H.B. 1410, 94th Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Ark. 2023).
 Jennifer Sherer & Nina Mast, Iowa Governor Signs One of the Most Dangerous Rollbacks of Child Labor Laws in the Country, Economic Policy Institute (May 31, 2023 at 1:54 PM), https://www.epi.org/blog/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/.
 Opsahl, supra note 5.
 Schatz, Young Introduce New Legislation to Help Stop Child Labor [hereinafter New Legislation], U.S. Senator Brian Schatz for Hawai‘i (May 20, 2023), https://www.schatz.senate.gov/news/press-releases/schatz-young-introduce-new-legislation-to-help-stop-child-labor.
 Id.; Stop Child Labor Act, S. 3051, 118th Cong. (2023).
 New Legislation, supra note 23.
 Opsahl, supra note 5; New Legislation, supra note 25.
 Gilligan, supra note 3.