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Published February 08, 2012, 04:22 PM

Youth farm labor debate continues

WASHINGTON — An Obama administration proposal for stricter rules on the employment of youths under 16 turned highly political last week as the Department of Labor pulled back somewhat on the proposal a day before a hearing in the House of Representatives.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — An Obama administration proposal for stricter rules on the employment of youths under 16 turned highly political last week as the Department of Labor pulled back somewhat on the proposal a day before a hearing in the House of Representatives.

Rep. Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont., and Sen. Jon Tester, R-Mont., who are running against each other for Tester’s seat, both said the whole rule change should be abandoned.

Last September, the Labor Department had proposed requiring that children under the age of 16, who work on a parent’s farm could only work on that farm if it is “wholly owned” by the parent. But after protests from farm groups and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Labor Department officials announced on Feb. 2 that they would repropose the rule and continue to allow children to work on a farm in which the parent is a part owner, a partner in a partnership, or an officer of a corporation that has a “substantial” ownership interest in the farm.

The decision represented a partial victory for farm and rural groups who have said the rule would make it impossible for rural youth to be trained in farming, doesn’t reflect modern ownership patterns, would make it impossible for grandchildren, nieces and nephews of farm owners to learn about farming and runs counter to Vilsack’s campaign to encourage young people to stay on the farm and in rural America.

At the American Farm Bureau Federation meeting in Honolulu last month, Vilsack said he had called Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and told her “there is a value system here. This is a way for rural folks to teach their children about hard work.”

Vilsack noted at the time that Solis “comes from California, where it’s different and there are more migrant workers.” The secretary also said he had urged her to speak to farmers from other parts of the country. He compared the situation to the conflicts between farmers and officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before the agency decided not to regulate spilled milk as oil or to regulate dust on rural roads.

Partisan split

Most Democrats praised the decision to pull back on the rule, but some Republicans and Tester were not satisfied.

The National Farmers Union, whose members are Democratic-leaning, said it was pleased the administration listened to the concerns of the agriculture community.

American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman, whose members are Republican-leaning, said he appreciated Vilsack’s efforts, but that “much more work is needed.”

“Farm work has always played a significant role in the lives of rural youth across the country, whether they are milking cows on their grandparents’ farm or harvesting apples as a summer job,” he said. “DOL’s rule would have a detrimental effect on family farms and would create an even tighter supply of farm labor when it’s already in short supply.”

Rehberg participated in a House Small Business Subcommittee hearing on the issue and pledged to use his power on the appropriations committee to block the proposed regulations. Tester, who had already called on the Labor Department to change the rule, then issued another press release calling for it to be abandoned.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, and Vilsack, whose wife, Christie, is running against King for a House seat in Iowa, also had a testy exchange over the issue.

After Nancy Leppink, the deputy administrator of the Wage and Hour Division of the Labor Department, told the subcommittee that USDA had been working with the Labor Department in the development of the rules, King said he thinks it would be accurate to say that Vilsack “is working in advocacy of these rules.”

Leppink replied that she could say only that the two departments were working together.

Vilsack was not present at the hearing, but sent an email to Agweek in reaction to King’s comment.

“Throughout this process, I have worked to ensure that the voices of America’s farmers and ranchers have been heard loud and clear. I applaud Secretary Solis and the Department of Labor for their decision to re-propose the rule to ensure kids across the nation have the opportunity to learn the value and reward of good old-fashioned farm work, while still providing protection to children from the most dangerous aspects of farming.”

Real risks

In the midst of the politics, the issues of child labor and safety seemed to get lost even though they are real.

Leppink, testified that 130 children, 15 years of age and younger, have died while working, and that 73 percent of these children were employed in agriculture.

The most common cause of agricultural deaths, Leppink said, was operation of farm machinery, with tractors involved in about a third of the fatalities.

She also noted that in the past two years, three young workers employed at grain storage facilities were killed, two youth each lost a leg to a power-driven auger while working in a grain elevator, and a 14-year-old girl was seriously injured when she was stampeded at a livestock auction.

“Many tragic and unnecessary accidents involving children employed in agriculture never make the national news, but result in significant harm to the lives of those children and their families,” Leppink testified.

She also noted that it is not uncommon for Wage and Hour Division investigators to find very young children working illegally in the fields and exposed to pesticides, dangerous machinery and other hazards.

Investigators from the Phoenix office have found children as young as 10 and 11 working during the fall chili harvest, she said, while investigators from the McAllen, Texas, office found children 9, 10 and even 6 years old illegally employed to harvest onions.

Many of the provisions in the Labor Department’s proposed updating of the rule regard child labor on farms. Those prohibiting farm employees 15 or younger from operating tractors or having certain interactions with animals would apply only to children who do not qualify under the parental exemption.

“These expanding protections have always allowed for the children of farmers to be employed on their parent’s farm without restriction,” Leppink said.

Of the application of the rules to nonfamily members, she noted, “The agricultural provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act only apply to youth under the age of 16. Once a child reaches 16, he or she may be employed in agriculture to do any work at any time.”

The proposed regulation would, however, prohibit children under 18 from working in establishments such as grain elevators, grain bins, silos, feedlots, feed yards, stockyards, livestock exchanges and livestock auctions. At present children age 16 and over can work in these establishments.

The rule would also prohibit child employees from using electronic devices, including cell phones, while operating power-driven equipment, including motor vehicles and tractors, although it would allow the use of two-way radios and navigational devices.

A representative of FFA (the new name for Future Farmers of America) testified that he hoped the new regulations would not interfere with the organization’s program to provide youth a “supervised agricultural experience” that includes safety training.

Leppink testified that it would not.

“The proposed rule would not eliminate safety programs that are provided by organizations such as 4-H and the FFA,” she said. “Nor would the regulation apply to situations where a child is raising a pig as part of her 4-H project, or taking the pig she has raised to sell at a county fair or market on her own behalf.”

Leppink also said a child of any age could assistant a neighbor to round up loose cattle, because that would not establish an employer/employee relationship and could also help a neighbor with nonhazardous chores such as hand harvesting crops.

Limit participation

Robert Barr, deputy agriculture commissioner in West Virginia, testified that proposals such as prohibiting children from working on ladders higher than six feet or with animals over six months of age or in high temperatures would mean that teenagers could not participate in many activities.

Barr also testified that only allowing children of farm owners and operators to work on farms will eliminate opportunities for children who are not “born to farm parents.”

Chris Chinn, a hog farmer from Missouri, testified that school sports activities are much more dangerous than working on the farm. Chinn said her daughters have been taken to the emergency room for school-related injuries but never for any farm injury. She also said grandparents should be allowed to supervise their grandchildren on the farm because they are even stricter than parents in what they will allow children to do.

“The feeling in the agriculture community is that the whole proposal is fundamentally flawed,” Chinn said.

The proposed changes were based on recommendations from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a division of the Centers for Disease Control.

The National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety supports the changes, which would apply to hired youth younger than 16 and would focus on jobs that research has shown to cause the most injuries and fatalities, such as tractor operation and certain types of work with animals.

The center, part of the Marshfield (Wis.) Clinic Research Foundation, issued a statement on the proposed rule in December.

“Working in agriculture is beneficial to youth on many levels,” said Barbara Lee, director of the National Children’s Center and National Farm Medicine Center.

“The National Children’s Center has long focused on promoting meaningful work experience for young people with less risk of farm-related disease or injury,” she said. “The center led development of two sets of landmark guidelines in consultation with agricultural employers and farm parents, as well as with safety and health specialists.”

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