The Biden administration has limited tools to fight child labor violations in Iowa, where a Republican state legislature just enacted a statute that would allow kids to work in conditions that are illegal under federal law.
While top officials from the US Labor Department have said that the bill signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) last month violates federal protections that trump state rules, the agency hasn’t outlined any specific plan to boost enforcement in Iowa, or in other states loosening child labor restrictions.
The DOL may not act anytime soon. The agency can educate the public about the law and use its extremely limited resources to focus its enforcement in states. But it can’t compel state labor officials in Iowa, or any other state with child labor laws more permissive than federal law, to enforce federal rules on their own, according to labor attorneys.
Bloomberg Law sent multiple requests for comment to the Labor Department inquiring about forthcoming guidance or enforcement initiatives targeting Iowa or other states weakening child labor laws. The agency said in a statement that it “monitors state laws” and will “enforce accordingly,” but provided no concrete assurance it would be altering its oversight plans as a result of the new Iowa statute.
Effective July 1, the new Iowa law extends the hours that minors can work, limits business liability for an underage worker’s injuries, and allows teenage apprentices into jobs that have previously been deemed too hazardous, like in roofing, warehouse, and factory work.
DOL officials opined in a May 10 letter that parts of the Iowa measure conflicted with federal law, though the note was based on an earlier version of the bill.
While the Iowa legislation is the most expansive, a number of other states have passed or considered measures to roll back child labor protections, even as reports of violations and federal scrutiny have grown.
Arkansas recently repealed its work permit requirement for kids under 16, though it also passed a separate law increasing the penalties for child labor violations. An Ohio bill that passed the state Senate and is awaiting a House vote would extend the hours that 14- and 15-year-olds can work on school nights beyond what’s allowed under federal law. …
The DOL has limited ability on a practical level to curb any abuse in the states under its founding statute, the Fair Labor Standards Act, which also sets out federal child labor rules.
The statute does not explicitly allow the DOL to compel state agencies to do anything, including to enforce more protective federal law within state borders, according to labor law attorneys.
“In this space, federal law and state law stand apart,” said Paul DeCamp, a former Wage and Hour administrator who is now a management-side attorney with Epstein Becker & Green PC.