Family farms are renowned for growing competent kids. Adults who grew up on a farm still enjoy an advantage in the job market, thanks to a reputation that they "know how to work."
Although few in agriculture would dispute that a farm is a great place to raise kids, it can also be a dangerous place-and sometimes even deadly.
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) is proposing changes to child labor rules that apply to young hired workers on farms. DOL recently extended its comment period 30 days, to Dec. 1, because of the flood of comments it received thus far. Producers are encouraged to weigh in on the highly controversial proposal.
Dennis Murphy, Penn State University farm safety specialist, says the old adage, "change is in the air" has "never been truer," because, he says, the proposed changes to regulations governing the hiring of 14 and 15-year-olds for farm work are "significant." Murphy says "in essence," they'll preclude hiring most 14 and 15-year-olds "for the types of jobs most useful to farmers." Those working for their parents on their own farm are exempted.
Murphy points out that the required training for a 14 or 15-year-olds to operate a tractor and field equipment will "most likely be prohibitive for most vocational agricultural programs, where the training must take place." The traditional safe tractor and machinery operation certification program offered by Extension will no longer be accepted.
"While the need for safe tractor and machinery certification programs remains (especially for on-farm kids), the incentive for Cooperative Extension to offer such programs will be gone," he surmises. "The unintended consequence may be that many youth will receive less exposure to formal safe tractor and machinery operation. These changes will demand that farmers take on more responsibilities when it comes to teaching safety to young workers."
According to the Farm Bureau, the proposed changes are being made due to safety concerns, as well as to more closely align regulations for agriculture with non-ag occupations. The DOL emphasizes that the proposed rules will not, as noted, apply to children who work for their parents (or a relative who acts in place of the parent) on a farm owned or operated by that parent.
The DOL points out that the fatality rate for agricultural workers who are 15 to 17 years of age is 4.4 times greater than the risk for the average worker in that age range.
According to Claire Layman, public policy education specialist with Michigan State University, the more-prohibitive proposed rules apply only to "young hired farm workers." They are defined as:
• 14 and 15-year-olds who aren't the children of the farm owner or operator;
• 12 and 13-year-olds who work on the same farm where their parents (or a person standing in place of a parent-more on this below) are employed, or with the written consent of a parent or a person standing in place of a parent;
• Kids under 12 who are employed with the written consent of their parents, or a person standing in place of their parents, on a small farm where no employee is required by the Farm Labor Standards Act to be paid minimum wage.
The MSU specialist explains that "a person standing in place of a parent" has been interpreted by Congress and DOL to mean "a relative, such as a grandparent or aunt or uncle, who assumes the duties and responsibilities of the parent...regarding all matters relating to the child's safety, rearing, support, health and well-being." It does not include "a corporation or partnership, unless wholly owned by the parent."
According to Layman, in all cases, there must be an "employment relationship" between the young hired farm work and farm owner." Exceptions are also provided for "volunteers or students performing educational work for their own well-being and who are generally not considered employees."
It should be noted that the rules are not intended to apply to 4-H participants tending their animals boarded on someone else's farm, or performing duties relating to a fair project, as long as they are not performing those duties for hire.
This MSU spokesperson notes that "the most significant proposals" would do three things:
1) Broadly prohibit "young hired farm workers" (under age 16) from operating or tending any power-driving equipment. Currently, 14 and 15-year-olds can operate tractors and other equipment after completing a safety course offered by 4-H or Extension, "or if they are enrolled in student-learner programs or vocational agricultural training programs," says Layman. However, it's now proposed they shouldn't operate tractors and other power-driven machinery-even equipment powered by horses. "An exception would be made for student learners who have completed 90 hours of ag education offered by a state or local educational authority, or a similar program conducted by a private school," she details.
It's also noted the proposed rules would also prohibit young hired farm workers (under 16) from riding as passengers on any power-driving machinery being moved on a public road (with some exceptions).
Operating power-driven equipment includes machines that cut, shape, form, surface, nail, staple, stitch, fasten, punch, assemble or press. It also includes setting up, adjusting, repairing, oiling or cleaning a machine, as well as placing materials into or removing them from the machine, to name just a few restrictions.
2) Prohibit "young hired farm workers" from working in areas occupied by intact (not castrated) male horses, pigs, cattle or bison older than six months; a sow with suckling pigs or a cow with a newborn calf (umbilical present); engaging or assisting in animal husbandry practices; handling animals with known dangerous behaviors; poultry catching or cooping in preparation for slaughter or market; and herding animals in confined spaces such as feed lots or corrals, or on horseback, or using motorized vehicles such as trucks or ATVs.
3) Prohibit "young hired farm workers" from using electronic communication devices while operating or assisting to operate power-driven equipment. This includes participating in a conversation electronically, using the Internet, texting, entering data into a GPS and more. It doesn't include listening to music, as long as the "noninteractive device" is "hands-free" without headphones or earbuds. Glancing at a GPS, using a cell phone to call 911 in an emergency and wearing appropriate hearing protection wouldn't be prohibited under the proposal.
Murphy with Penn State University, says the proposed changes don't impact the employment of youth 16 years old or older-except a new regulation that impacts hiring teens between ages 16 and 18. It forbids employment of 16 and 17-year-olds in all occupations in farm-product raw materials wholesale trade industries, like at grain elevators and terminals, grain bins, silos, feed lots and feed yards, stockyards and livestock exchanges.
"The parental exemption that allows youth younger than age 16 to operate tractors and machinery on a parent's farm is not being changed," Murphy stresses.
"When a child works for a relative, many assume-or perhaps hope-that the parental exception is valid. This is clearly not the case, especially if the child commutes on a daily or weekend basis to perform the work," the Penn State safety specialist says of the proposal. "The background notes also make clear that the parental exception doesn't apply to farms operated by partnerships or corporations unless such partnerships or corporations are owned solely by the parent or by a person standing in place of the parent."
A detailed report explaining all the proposed rule changes is on the DOL's website at http://tinyurl.com/7wdcw2u. Questions on the proposed changes can be addressed to Arthur Kerschner, Jr. in DOL's Division of Enforcement Policy and Procedures within the Branch of Child Labor and Special Employment (202-693-0072).
Producers can sound off online at http://tinyurl.com/3bshgko. Identify comments by the RIN docket number 1235-AA06, Layman advises. Comments can also be mailed to: Wage and Hour Division, U.S. Dept. of Labor, Room S-3502, 200 Constitution Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20210.
Next week, Agri-View will continue its look at this red-hot farm safety issue.