Child labor bill undermines Iowa workers’ protections


The concept of workers’ compensation did not first appear in the United States. It arose in Germany, under the leadership of Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. It then spread across most of Europe, reaching a consensus that if an employee was physically injured while working for their employer, then he or she was entitled to monetary reimbursement.

This theory did not reach our shores until the start of the 20th century and, it is fair to say, it was not well received.

The American workforce was found on the railroads, in the tunnels obtaining silver, gold, coal, and in the factories. None of these places was particularly safe because safety was not the concern. The results were frequent aand often serious injuries to the employee’s body. Denied a statutory remedy, those who worked for a living sought compensation in the courts.

The workers sued and the employers defended, advancing three theories why it was really the worker’s fault: First, he or she was careless (negligent) and caused the accident; a fellow employee caused the harm; and, lastly, the person knew it was dangerous when they took the job and therefore, they assumed the risk.

These were good legal arguments, but unfortunately for the employers, these cases were tried in the mining towns, communities where railroads were important to the local economy, or places where factories were located. The fellow workers and their families were far more sympathetic to the injured than to the owner.

Lawyers like Clarence Darrow, he of the Scopes Monkey Trial, and many others made it readily apparent, by obtaining large damage verdicts, that maybe an organized system of compensation would be better. Insurance carriers, like Hartford, slowly convinced state legislatures to adopt workers’ compensation statutes. The law we have today was based on this foundation.

In recent years, the Iowa Legislature has undertaken to “reform” the so-called work comp rules by making recovery for certain injuries worth less in value. For example, the line workers in the meat processing industry often develop problems with their shoulders. The solution was not to stop the injuries, just make the damage worth less. Lump sum settlements rather than periodic payments were allowed, but for all practical purposes, those have been eliminated. Damages will be paid in dribbles rather than forward passes. Still, the framework is there and what has been changed can be restored in future.

But weakening work comp laws and making unemployment compensation harder to obtain has not, for some unknown reason, convinced our workers to stay in the state or new workers to arrive. We face a worker shortage and we have a new solution that will address this situation: We will put our kids to work by changing child labor laws.

Under a proposal the Legislature is expected to adopt before adjournment, kids 14 years of age and older can go to work in our factories, replace their mothers and fathers as waiters, hotel clerks or other similar positions. They will be allowed to work up to 28 hours a week during the school year, which with 40 hours in school, will provide nearly 70 hours a week to be both the student and the factory worker.

Here is an even bigger bonus, they will be designated as “trainees,” which means their wages can be less than what the adult working next to them is earning.

But even more important to this development is that under the original bill, the employer would not have to cover them with workers’ compensation insurance or health insurance. If a child is injured, it will be up to their parents to cover the medical expenses. If the youngster suffers a serious and life-altering injury, so be it. Life is hard, important that the kids learn that at a young age. The Senate bill, approved early Tuesday, was amended to allow youth workers to access workers’ compensation. It’s now up to the House Republicans to decide whether to accept that change.

The governor and the Republican legislative majority have promised to change the face of Iowa and putting our kids to work in factories certainly will. For myself, I always wondered where they got the title for the movie that was made about the Scopes Monkey Trail. Turns out it was based on Proverbs 11:29, which states, “Those who trouble their household inherit the wind and fools become slaves to the wise of heart.”

Editor’s note: This column was originally published by the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. It has been updated to reflect Senate action Tuesday (April 18) on child labor legislation.

Dave Nagle, of Cedar Falls, is a former Iowa Democratic Party state chairman and three-term U.S. congressman from Iowa.