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Child Labor is Back

Corporate lobbyists are working to dismantle child labor protections, pushing younger kids into more dangerous jobs.

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Hosted by More Perfect Union Producer Andrew Rivera

Videographer: Do you have a quick minute to do an interview—?

State Senator Jason Schultz: What is it on?

Videographer: the youth employment bill.

State Senator Jason Schultz: Oh! I’m going to pass on that…

Andrew Rivera: That’s Iowa State Senator Jason Schultz. He’s the sponsor of the most dramatic rollback of child labor protections in the nation — even if he doesn’t want to talk about it.

State Senator Jason Schultz: No, I’m going to pass on that. I’m just kind of stepping back on that. I’m gonna not get into any conversations on that. I’m gonna stay away from that although you might find out later why. There you go, there’s your tease.

Host: Senator Schultz is clearly proud of his work — but as our investigation will show you, he’s just one part of a shadowy national effort funded by big corporations and PACs to roll back child labor laws that have been in place since the 1930s.

[News Clip]: More states are considering changes to child labor law as they try to fill jobs. Maine and Michigan lowered the required age to serve alcohol. New Jersey raised the limit on the number of hours teens can work over the summer. In Minnesota, a new bill would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work construction jobs. In Iowa, a proposed bill would allow 14- and 15-year-olds work certain jobs in meat packing plants.

Andrew Rivera: The Iowa bill takes child labor law rollbacks to the next level.

Think kids in ultra-dangerous meatpacking facilities, high-volume Pepsi bottling plants, and working for cheap on the searing hot ovens of fast food chains like McDonald’s for 30+ hours a week. 

No, for real: Iowa Republicans want to allow kids between the ages of 14 to 17 to work in incredibly dangerous, often deadly workplaces — places like construction sites, where more than 5000 workers died last year. 

As it’s set up now, there would be virtually zero restrictions: the job would just have to be part of “an education program” — something that the company could invent itself. 

It’s true that more than a third of teenagers across the US worked summer jobs in 2021, but serving ice cream isn’t exactly the same as working in building demolition.

So why would lawmakers put kids who are just finishing middle school into such dangerous situations? Here’s what Representative Deyoe, the house sponsor of the bill, says.

Representative Dave Deyoe: Right now, kids can be out until 10 o’clock if they’re out for a sport or a school activity, and so why are they not able to be able to work until say, for example, 9 o’clock?

Andrew Rivera: An actual expert we spoke to firmly disagreed.

Reid Maki: It’s a bizarre argument to argue that playing team sports is akin to working in a factory or some other dangerous environment. We like kids not to work more than 20 hours a week because that’s kind of a cutoff for damage that’s done to them educationally.

Andrew Rivera: OK, so why are lawmakers actually doing this?

Brad Epperly: The bill was really spearheaded by the Restaurant Association. Um, we sort of came along. We were asked to be, we were invited to come along.

Andrew Rivera: That’s Brad Epperly, a lobbyist who works for big corporate clients like the Iowa Grocery Industry Association. He’s outright admitting to us that the Iowa Restaurant Association was the driving force behind this bill. 

They’re an affiliate of the National Restaurant Association, a trade group that represents some of the biggest names in fast food, like Burger King and Taco Bell. They also lobby for big corporations like PepsiCo and Sysco. 

And from one look at their newsletter from this time last year, you can tell they’ve been hard at work spreading the gospel about the benefits of young labor. 

The hands-on internship at the slaughterhouse is their big priority this year, but we can’t give them all the credit. 

This child labor law rollback originated at a meeting of the Iowa Workforce Development Board, which is overseen by Gov. Kim Reynolds. 

Most of its members are corporate CEOs and lobbyists, and they meet up several times a year to come up with new policies. This bill was the product of a meeting in November.

The WDB is chaired by Jay Evers, the executive officer of the Association of Iowa Builders, hence the emphasis on kids using band saws on work sites. 

Lobbyists from the Iowa Association of Business and Industry are well-represented on the board, which gives member corporations like John Deere and Google seats at the table.

And of course, no race to the bottom would be complete without the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity and Opportunities Solutions Network also lobbying on the bill. 

Given their obvious enthusiasm, we tried to get some of these lobbyists to talk to us about the many benefits of child labor — but they were a bit shy to take credit for their work.

The next part of the bill was clearly written for the Iowa Restaurant Association, Hotel and Lodging Association, and National Bureau of Independent Businesses, the state leaders in low-wage jobs.

It would allow 14-year-olds to work in giant freezing meat lockers and raise their mandatory clock-out time from 7pm to 9pm — and then 11pm during the summer.

Reid Maki: The research that has been done has found pretty clearly that 20 hours is kind of a cutoff and when kids work more than that during the school week, their grades start to plummet and their school completion rate starts to plummet.

Andrew Rivera: Many businesses, like retail and restaurants and fast food joints, love to hire kids because they’ll take a lower paycheck. 

If they can stay at work even longer, places like McDonalds — which loves hiring kids — don’t even need to worry about hiring adults who can fill those jobs. Let alone paying them living wages.

Reid Maki: Children’s brains are not fully developed, especially that part of the brain that exercises caution that, you know, tells a person “oh this is dangerous, I might get hurt.” That part of the brain is just not quite there yet and it doesn’t really fully develop until the early or mid-20s. 

Andrew Rivera: The bill would also let 16- and 17-year-olds handle alcohol on the job, which effectively puts them in pubs and bars with intoxicated adults.

Consider these all big wins for BlackRock, Vanguard, Wellington, JPMorgan, Fidelity. 

Those Wall Street titans naturally own big stakes in the multinational food distribution powerhouses Sysco and Performance Food Service, two of the top donors to the Iowa Restaurant Association. Truly the voice of small business.

But there’s one company that benefits more than any other: Hy-Vee grocery stores.

[Clip of Governor Kim Reynolds singing the Hy-vee jingle]: Hyvee, where there’s a helpful smile in every aisle. Hy-Vee is one of the biggest employers in Iowa — and also one of its most prolific violators of child labor law.

Andrew Rivera: Every few years, a new report seems to come out about all the minors unlawfully working for them. Since 2000, Hy-Vee has been fined over $700,000 for more than 30 labor law violations, including a big fine last year for safety violations.  

But as much as they’ve forked over to OSHA, Hy-Vee has been even more generous to Kim Reynolds and Iowa Republicans, shelling out over $815,000 over the last decade alone.

Reynolds even kicked off her 2018 campaign for governor at a Hy-Vee — and appeared on their bespoke talk show.

[Clip of Governor Reynolds on Hy-Vee Today]: Hy-Vee is a great example of a phenomenal employer. They’re one of our largest employers in the state of Iowa. They’re in small communities all across this great state and one of the major employers in thse small communities. So I’m very very grateful to that helpful smile in every aisle.

Andrew Rivera: It’s unclear how many kids were working there at the time, but Hy-Vee is just one of many corporations that are now regularly being caught violating child labor law.

For a bill pitched as a cure for so-called “worker shortages” in Iowa — where the minimum wage is still $7.25  — and so many other states, the reality is damning.

You’ve seen the headlines, including the huge recent expose in The New York Times about the proliferation of child labor. Since the pandemic began, violations have exploded, and were up by 37% last year: Packers Sanitation Services, Hyundai/Kia in Alabama, Blackstone-owned PSSI, a sanitation company with systemic violations

Instead of cracking down, states are lining up to legalize the practices — 10 over the past two years alone.

It’s much the same story in Arkansas, Ohio, and Wisconsin: Big donations by big corporations are leading to laws that put kids at risk in order to save a few bucks. 

The intention is written in plain English: the original version of the Iowa bill called for total corporate immunity if a kid got injured at a dangerous workplace. 

Lawmakers were forced to scrub that, but employers will still avoid liability if a kid gets into an accident while driving home after working late into the night.

Exploit a kid’s cheap labor, then send them packing, and no responsibility when there are consequences. 

It should go without saying, but such a textbook example of corporate greed and corruption shouldn’t qualify as educational experience.

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