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DES MOINES | Iowa seniors would be better protected against abuse, neglect and financial exploitation under a bill that sailed through the Iowa Senate by a 49-0 margin Tuesday.

Senate File 2239 provides criminal and civil protections to older individuals, defined as age 60 or older.

The legislation, which now goes to the Iowa House for consideration, directs the state Department on Aging to create an elder resource and referral program and to work with the six area agencies on aging to implement the program through a local network of partners, stakeholders and elder rights specialists in each area across Iowa.

“This bill is truly a landmark for Iowa seniors,” said Sen. Mary Jo Wilhelm, D-Cresco.

The goals of the program are to increase the awareness of elder abuse, provide options for elder individuals at risk of abuse, and provide a mechanism to prevent, detect, report and intervene in cases of abuse, neglect and financial exploitation of older individuals, Wilhelm said.

The bill directs the Department on Aging to collect and maintain information on incidents involving elder abuse, and to design and implement a uniform method of collecting data on elder abuse. It also provides for the filing of a petition for a protective order or temporary or emergency orders for elder abuse.

“This provides options and tools to enable seniors or older Iowans over the age of 60 to live in the homes whenever possible and be free of abuse and financial exploitation,” said Sen. David Johnson, R-Ocheyedan. “I rise in support of the bill, especially since it’s going to serve those people who sometimes fall through the cracks.”

Senators amended the bill to remove criminal provisions dealing with theft that are already covered in other sections of the Iowa code, but kept new penalties for financial exploitation of a senior involving fraud, stolen money and a relationship of trust or confidence. Exploitation involving more than $50,000 would be a Class B felony punishable by up to 25 years in prison.

“This is tough medicine,” said Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids. “We are cracking down on financial exploitation of seniors.”

Also Tuesday, senators approved a bill requiring schools to test for radon by 2016.

The bill, which passed 35-14 and now goes to the Iowa House for consideration, would require school districts to retest for dangerous radon gas levels every 10 years and to report results to the Iowa Department of Public Health, which also will share the information with the state Department of Education and post the results on the IDPH website.

Radon is a naturally occurring gas found in soil and Iowa is known to have high levels of the cancer-causing gas. The bill wouldn't require school districts to have a certified person conduct the testing until the 10 year follow up testing.

Sen. Matt McCoy, D- Des Moines, voted for Senate File 2262, but likened the legislation during floor debate to a “warm bucket of spit” that doesn’t go far enough to address the severity of radon gas in schools and throughout the state. McCoy took issue with the fact the bill didn’t require schools to conduct mitigation efforts if high levels of radon gas were found and that certified inspectors weren't required to administer the first tests due by 2016.

“I will vote for this bill because with this information perhaps individuals in communities throughout the state can look at their individual schools and start addressing the problem locally,” he said.

The bill's floor manager Sen. Tod Bowman, D- Maquoketa, said the bill isn’t perfect but he “sees it as a great first step" to address an issue that is a problem in the state.

In other action Tuesday, majority Democrats approved a bill designed to give employees more protections against wage theft.

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Senate File 2295, which passed on a 26-23 party-line vote, provides that an employer has the burden to establish that a deduction from an employee’s wages is lawful and requires an employer to obtain written authorization for a deduction from the employee in advance. Other provisions would protect an employee against retaliation in a wage dispute and would make employers liable for monetary damages when a wage violation occurs – even if unintentional.

Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, the bill’s floor manager, said the bill provides “common sense language” for a law that currently is “inadequate” by requiring employers to indicate in writing how much an employee is going to get paid and how they are going to get paid.

“We really believe that failure to enforce wage laws and follow minimum standards cheats legal workers, it drives down wages, and is very unfair to existing Iowa businesses who play by the rules,” said Dotzler. “Unfortunately, there’s an epidemic in Iowa. The epidemic is getting worse and worse where more and more Iowans are being cheated out of the wages that they’ve got coming.”

A 2012 report issued by the Iowa Policy Project contended that Iowa workers could be losing as much $600 million each year due to wage theft. The liberal policy group defined wage theft as a worker not receiving legally owed wages because his or her employer breaks the law or a contract. Common forms of wage theft include non-payment of wages, underpayment of wages, tipped job violations, deduction violations or improper classification of workers.

“We’ve got employers ripping off their workers and we need to deal with it,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City.

No GOP senator spoke during floor debate on a bill that likely will not get taken up in the Iowa House, where Republicans hold a 53-47 majority.

 -- Alison Sullivan contributed to this story

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