Common Good Iowa

Serving up just deserts on child labor

Posted on June 23, 2024 at 10:44 AM by Sean Finn

Experts warned from the beginning that Iowa’s child labor law changes violate federal statutes

Decades ago, this country decided to protect children from the fates that many young kids around the world were suffering — spending their days toiling away in fields and factories for a pittance to sustain their families. Despite efforts by powerful industry groups to prevent federal child labor laws (using arguments like “businesses need workers,” “skill development,” and “parental rights” that we still hear today[1]), child labor reform advocates worked for decades to pass federal laws preventing young kids and teens from dangerous and excessive work.[2]

The story doesn’t end there, because in 2022 Governor Kim Reynolds and industry leaders teamed up to try to suppress Iowa's worker protections below those of federal labor law. In 2023, they successfully enacted Senate File 542, and Reynolds proudly promoted Iowa’s looser child labor laws.[3] So did the Iowa Restaurant Association (IRA), which broadcasted to its members that they could start hiring 14- to 15-year-olds to work late on school nights and 16- to 17-year-olds to serve alcohol at restaurants.

To IRA CEO Jessica Dunker’s ostensible surprise, the federal Department of Labor (DOL) has been conducting child labor investigations in Iowa and charging employers for violating federal law, even though they weren’t violating state law.[4] This illustrates a basic principle of government that most high-schoolers understand — federal laws still apply even when states have different ones. If the bill’s authors missed that day in class, they at least had warnings from the DOL itself that federal labor laws would continue to be enforced.[5]

Why do these laws matter?

Children engaged in labor are less likely to attend and do well at school, have fewer opportunities to develop social connections, and are more susceptible to dangerous situations resulting in injury or death.[6] Young people are physiologically less capable of assessing danger and making safe decisions, which can turn dangerous situations into fatal ones.[7] If you’re still skeptical, read up on stories of teens who have suffocated in grain silos or lost fingers using power tools.[8]

How does Iowa do on child labor?

The state’s efforts to combat child labor have long been under-resourced and deeply insufficient. With a team of just four investigators who split their time between child labor and wage claims, the Department of Inspection, Appeals and Licensing (DIAL) completed just 42 cases in 2023. That’s down from 140 cases completed in 2021. While the trend in child labor investigations and violations has been on the increase for the nation, Iowa’s lack of trend demonstrates the inadequacy of resources for enforcing child labor laws.

graph comparing U.S., Iowa child labor enforcement actions 2016-23

Rather than using her platform to condemn the good work of federal child labor investigators, who pull thousands of youths out of illegal and hazardous working conditions each year, Governor Reynolds should focus on increasing resources for Iowa’s child labor enforcement. As for Dunker and the IRA, I say they’re getting their just deserts. Iowans should be grateful to the Department of Labor for keeping them in line.

[9] Provided by DIAL in September 2023.


Sean Finn is a Policy Analyst at Common Good Iowa. His work has included production of reports on child labor, wage theft, unemployment compensation and family prosperity issues, including CGI's latest report on the Cost of Living in Iowa. Contact Sean at

Categories: Jobs & labor

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