Today, Gov. Kim Reynolds released the following open letter to the state of Iowa:  

The U.S. Department of Labor is on a crusade to root out what it calls “oppressive child labor” in Iowa, and it's prepared to “fully utilize its statutory and regulatory authority” by imposing maximum penalties on businesses. In a recent opinion piece, the Des Moines Register’s editorial board was fully bought-in, warning about “exploited children” in workplaces across our state.  

It all sounds very alarming—until you take a deep breath, draw on some common-sense, and look at the facts. 

Last year, the Iowa Legislature passed a bill that allowed working hours for 14-and 15-year-olds to end at 9 p.m. during the school year and 11 p.m. in the summer—just two hours later than federal regulations. 

I was supportive of the bill and signed it into law, figuring the extra hours would come in handy for teens looking to gain work experience while saving for a first car, college tuition, or even some extra spending money.  

Sports and other extracurricular activities certainly keep high school students out until 9 p.m. on weeknights. And while there’s plenty of evidence touting the physical, mental, and social benefits for young athletes, the same is true for teens who work.     

In fact, research shows that part-time employment benefits teens well beyond a paycheck. High schoolers who hold a job set themselves up for future careers with higher wages, increased annual earnings, and less time spent out of work.   

But the Department of Labor seems to think kids who work are likely more oppressed than they are empowered.  

What to most Iowans looks like a sensible option for kids is being treated as a sinister plot to force children back into the sweatshops, mines, and factories of the late 1800s.  

The needs and challenges of today’s workforce have changed. Yet the department holds tight to outdated rules for problems that no longer exist—even to the extent of imposing fines up to $180,000 on Iowa businesses. Fines that will certainly cause some to close. 

Still, rules are rules, says the Register, and the federal government is simply enforcing the ones it has on the books. But that defense doesn’t hold water. 

Iowa’s allowable work hours for young teens have been above the federal maximum for more than 50 years. And we’re not alone.  

According to the Department of Labor’s website, 21 states have allowed 14- and 15-year-olds to work later than 7 p.m. for decades. And at least 25 states provide greater flexibility than the federal government when it comes to either night or maximum work hours. That includes both Republican- and Democrat-led states, like our neighbors in Illinois and Minnesota.  

So why the sudden and heavy-handed enforcement? And why is it seemingly targeted at Iowa? 

I believe the department’s attempt to single us out as an example of what not to do is misguided and likely to backfire. Because most reasonable people—and most Iowans are—believe that a job is a good thing for a kid. It teaches them a sense of responsibility and strengthens their work ethic. And in today’s workforce, young workers help small businesses thrive.  

I fully support enforcing labor laws against businesses that subject employees to harmful and oppressive conditions. But we’re not running sweatshops in Iowa. Our kids are working in small town Subways, the local pizza place, or a family-owned restaurant. Small businesses that are the livelihoods of Iowa families and the lifeblood of our state’s economy.  

And in all reality, a couple extra hours of work for kids who choose to have a job are much more likely to help than hurt them. 

It’s time for the Department of Labor to look to Iowa as an example of how to do this better.