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Industries facing worker shortages push to roll back child labor protections

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There's been a fierce debate in many states this year about child labor laws. Take Iowa. A bill there would allow minors to sell fireworks, serve alcohol and work later at night. Iowa Public Radio's Katarina Sostaric reports industries facing worker shortages have pushed to roll back protections that have been in place for years.

KATARINA SOSTARIC, BYLINE: Zoe Smith is folding pizza boxes to start out her Sunday dinner shift at Maggie's Farm Pizza in Iowa City. She's 17 years old, and she's had the job since she was 14.

ZOE SMITH: I kind of just have it so I can have some extra money.

SOSTARIC: Smith could soon have a new job responsibility - serving alcohol. Allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to bring alcoholic beverages to restaurant customers is one of many changes to child labor laws that passed the Iowa legislature with only Republican support. Smith says she's not afraid to serve alcohol, but she has had some problems with people coming in drunk after college football games.

SMITH: So I think that is definitely a very complicated issue, like, for kids that would be serving alcohol - that they wouldn't realize if something was happening to them.

SOSTARIC: The legislation would also allow younger teens to work longer hours. That's something the Iowa Restaurant Association lobbied for. Russell Vannorsdel is on its board of directors and runs a chain of movie theaters.

RUSSELL VANNORSDEL: It's become more and more difficult to fill our workforce, and we began utilizing the eager employment of 14- and 15-year-olds. They've loved being able to work for us.

SOSTARIC: He says currently, kids under 16 can't work late enough to fit movie schedules. The legislation would change that. It would also remove the requirement for employers hiring children in some occupations to get permits. Several other states, including Arkansas, Ohio and Missouri, have considered or passed similar changes this year. In Iowa, Republican State Senator Adrian Dickey, who led the bill's passage, said one of the state's biggest problems is a shortage of workers.

ADRIAN DICKEY: One area where we can help address that is maybe some of the over-burdensome, unfair regulations on our minors and what they can and are not able to do.

SOSTARIC: Later, Dickey said this was just an effort to expand opportunities for young people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Our kids are not for sale.

SOSTARIC: The push to change the labor laws brought protesting Democrats and labor unions to the state capitol. Charlie Wishman is president of the Iowa Federation of Labor. He and others say the bill could allow businesses to take advantage of low-income and migrant children for cheap labor and jeopardize their education.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLIE WISHMAN: Our kids - we see their dreams. You all see profit. That's why you're doing this.

SOSTARIC: Democratic Representative Jennifer Konfrst says regardless of changes that added some safety precautions, the legislation could still put kids in dangerous situations.

JENNIFER KONFRST: I don't think this is the way to solve our state's labor shortage. Frankly, I think wages, compensation, benefits, all the things that we know work to increase employment are the things that we need to do to get more people working.

SOSTARIC: The U.S. solicitor of labor, Seema Nanda, has also weighed in. She told Iowa officials in a letter the changes they're proposing, like expanding the hours 14- and 15-year-olds can work, are inconsistent with the limits set by federal child labor law. The Department of Labor lists similar inconsistencies in other states like Minnesota, Kansas and South Dakota. And Nanda says it's irresponsible for states to loosen child labor laws during a nationwide spike in violations. Still, Republican Governor Kim Reynolds says she'll probably sign the bill into law.

KIM REYNOLDS: One of the things that Iowa is known for is our tremendous work ethic, and that's because we're not afraid to work hard. We're not afraid to let our kids do that. And I can't even really understand all of the hoopla about it.

SOSTARIC: Reynolds has until June 2 to sign the bill. If and when she does, Iowa will join other states that have loosened child labor protections. For NPR News, I'm Katarina Sostaric in Des Moines.

(SOUNDBITE OF AKEMI FOX SONG, "SO FINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Katarina Sostaric is an Iowa City based reporter covering Eastern Iowa for Iowa Public Radio.