Child labor change under fire in farm country

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October 23, 2011 - 7:00pm

Even a day off of school is a work day for a farm kid.

This Columbus Day, a warm fall morning, Drew Wilber, 14, and his sister, Jade, 12, were helping their parents, Julie and Scott, unload a pickup full of pumpkins.

The Wilber family sells the produce from their 20-acre farm in Boone, Iowa, at a tiny stand in their front yard and at a weekly farmer's market in town. Just as work got under way, the family's hired help, 15-year-old MacKenzie Lewis, drove up on her scooter and pitched in.

No kids allowed?

The Department of Labor's proposed revisions to child labor regulations for agriculture include these prohibitions on children under 16:

  • All power-driven equipment
  • Animals
  • Pesticides
  • Timber operations
  • Manure pits
  • Storage bins
  • Tobacco production
  • From a height of more than six feet

It would also prohibit youth in both agricultural and non-agricultural jobs from using electronic devices, like phones and texting sources, while operating equipment.

It's a need as constant as good weather on a farm: good workers. And now many in farm country say a set of proposed rule changes by the U.S. Department of Labor could make finding help even harder.

Just as harvest was kicking into high gear at the end of August, the Labor Department issued the first new child labor regulations in 40 years, proposing barring children under the age of 16 from performing dangerous jobs, such as driving tractors, handling pesticides and branding cattle.

"Children employed in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable workers in America," Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis said in a release when the changes were announced.

The proposed changes created a legal exemption for farm families, allowing children to work on the farms owned by their parents.

So at the Wilbers' farm, for instance, their children could still do the work if the regulations are approved. But employees like MacKenzie would be prohibited from doing what the Labor Department deems a dangerous job, such as driving any machinery, like the popular four-wheelers used on many farms, or mowing grass.

The Wilburs also worry that kids who visit their farm for play or work which their friends often request so their children can learn about the farm could be a violation of the new regulations and subject them to the fines laid out in the proposal.

"If the kids don't care and the parents don't care and nobody reports us to the Department of Labor, then I guess it would be fine," Julie Wilber said. "But if one of the kids goes home and (is asked), What did you do at the Wilbers?' Oh we picked some pumpkins with Drew' and they report us to the Department of Labor then what?"

Even with that nod to farm families, ag advocacy groups are outraged about the changes, saying it shows a lack of understanding for the state of agriculture today.

Most farms are now organized under a corporation that includes multiple members of an extended family uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, grandparents and that legal status as a company would mean loss of the family exemption, said Jordan Dux, national affairs coordinator with the Nebraska Farm Bureau.

"So kids of individuals who are involved in a family corporation would no longer be able to help mom and dad on the ranch, on the farm. They wouldn't be able to work with animals. They wouldn't be able to work on hay wagons stacking bales six feet tall," he said. "There are lots of things that kids, typical farm practices, that would be outlawed by the Department of Labor."

Farm Bureau officials across farm country also have complained that the regulations would hinder the recruitment of the next generation of farmers and ranchers, calling it "a direct hit" on youth groups like 4-H and FFA.

"I think we can say this is a pretty direct attack on trying to interest folks in agriculture and it's going to cause some problems," Dux said.

Erin Herbold-Swalwell, a Des Moines attorney, looked at the proposed regulations for the Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation at Iowa State University. The new rules would make it "tricky" for any children other than the owner's own to be on the farm and it raises many legal liability issues, she said.

"If you do have those kids come out, maybe they get injured. Do you have to make them sign a waiver? Will those waivers hold up in court when they're working for you? Even if you say OK, you're not to operate any power-driven equipment on the farm,' what if they get in the tractor and do that? Did you imply consent to do that?" she said.

Farm work is one of the most dangerous occupations and it frequently affects the 1.26 million children under the age 20 who live on farms in the U.S. According to USDA statistics, an average of 104 children die each year as a result of a farm-related injury and more than 22,000 kids are injured.

Child safety advocates and others applauded the Labor Department's announcement and said the changes are long overdue. Others, like Barry Estabrook, a food journalist who has done extensive reporting on farm labor, said given the extent of injuries, the proposal was "timid at best."

Children who work in agriculture have little protection under the Fair Labor Standards Act, unlike their counterparts who work in other occupations, Estabrook said. Young people who work on farms "have suffered under a federally mandated double standard," Estabrook wrote in a post on his "Politics of the Plate" blog.

"I don't see it as any more ludicrous to envision a child driving a bulldozer or a back hoe on a construction site than driving a back hoe in the farm fields," he said in an interview. "What is the fundamental difference?"

In another update, the department also proposed preventing anyone under age 18 from working at stockyards, livestock auctions, commercial feed lots or grain elevators, the sites of several high-profile deaths. Six of the 26 people who suffocated in grain elevator deaths last year were under the age of 16, according to a Purdue University study.

The Public Citizen's Watch Division, a congressional watchdog, is supporting the increased protections and is also advocating for the inclusion of heat stress as a hazard. The changes are needed to protect children, said the division's Justin Feldman, and he pointed to the case of two 17-year-old boys in Oklahoma who were caught in a grain auger in an accident last summer.

"It took the fire department an hour to cut through the grain auger and each one lost a leg. They were athletes. They were going into their senior year in high school. And now their lives have been very much changed," he said.

The Department of Labor is taking public comment until Nov. 1. But several ag advocacy groups, like the Nebraska Farm Bureau, are asking for an extension on the public comment period, saying it came at the busy harvest time and didn't give enough notice to farmers and ranchers.




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