Ag industry concerned about proposed revisions for child farm workers
October 25, 2011
Terry Fankhauser understands the need to keep youth safe – after all, he has young kids of his own.
But the Fort Lupton area resident who serves as the executive vice president for the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association just can’t make complete sense out of the U.S. Department of Labor’s ongoing endeavors concerning young farm workers.
And he isn’t alone.
The Department of Labor is proposing revisions to child labor laws that would strengthen safety standards for young agricultural workers.
Fankhauser and others believe the proposals go too far.
The revisions would extend restrictions on child labor, including barring children younger than 16 from operating most power-driven equipment, and all youth in both agricultural and nonagricultural work from using electronic devices while operating such equipment.
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Grain elevators and bins, silos, feed lots, stockyards and livestock exchanges and auctions would be off limits to nonagricultural workers younger than 18, and the proposed revisions would extend regulations to prohibit child agricultural work with animals, pesticides, timber, manure pits and storage bins.
It’s the first update to the Fair Labor Standards Act concerning child farm workers since 1970. A complete list of the proposed revisions – 113 pages – is available on the Federal Register’s website.
To Fankhauser and others, including officials with the Colorado Farm Bureau and Colorado Livestock Association, the greatest loss from such rules wouldn’t come in the form of revenue or lowered crop production – although youth now play a big part in family farm operations, they noted, and some farmers throughout the county, state and nation are already experiencing difficulty in finding enough help at certain times of the year.
Most devastating would be the missed experiences for the youth, they claim.
“Kids – including myself when I was younger – gain so much from working on farms,” Fankhauser said. “We want kids to get away from the television and get outside, but some of these proposals might be a step in the wrong direction. This type of work helps kids develop a good work ethic.”
“Do I want to ensure that children are as safe as possible in work environments? Absolutely. But I think a little common sense needs to be used as this moves forward.”
Les Hardesty, a local dairyman who serves on various local and national organizations in the dairy industry, agreed.
“Not all kids can go out and mow lawns, or work at restaurants, or bag groceries. What do they expect all of these kids to do?” Hardesty said. “And more importantly, how – with these proposed revisions in place – would we teach today’s kids to feed a population that’s growing rapidly. It won’t be an easy task, and we’re only hurting ourselves by taking away the learning experiences of today’s youth.”
The proposed revisions would not apply to children working on farms owned by their parents. But, as Fankhauser and Hardesty explained, many farm owners employ young workers who are neighbors, nephews, nieces and grandchildren – and some families combine operations under one LLC.
Fankhauser said his own children – when old enough to make contributions – wouldn’t be able to help out on his family’s farm in Kansas since that operation is owned by his parents.
For those like Fankhauser who have issues with the proposals, the public can provide comments until Nov. 1, then a public hearing will be held.
But many feel that may not be enough time.
“It would be nice if those who are affected would be given a little more time to understand what’s going on,” said Rachel Motteram, director of member programs with the Colorado Livestock Association. “These are some very complicated and convoluted issues, and also very important.”
Motteram noted that some confusion recently has stemmed from the department’s alleged plans to add a revision that would prevent workers younger than 16 from taking part in activities that “inflict pain” to animals – such as branding, de-horning, castration and vaccinations.
“We just think there needs to be a lot more clarity before things move forward,” she added.
When asked last week if farmers and organizations in other parts of the country were raising the same concerns regarding the proposed revisions, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Labor said the department cannot make statements regarding the public’s input until the public comment period ends on Nov. 1.
The Department of Labor’s proposals have been on the horizon for months but just announced in September, according to The Farm Journal.
That announcement came about a month after a rural Colorado company pleaded guilty in federal court in Denver to violating workplace laws in the death of a 17-year-old boy who suffocated after he was sucked into a bin being filled with grain.
Tempel Grain Elevators LLP, under a plea agreement with prosecutors, must pay the family of Cody Rigsby $500,000 for his May 2009 death.
In addition to Rigsby’s death, two girls from Illinois were recently killed in an irrigation accident and two boys from Oklahoma were severely injured in a grain auger accident.
In a statement released by the department this summer when the revisions were announced, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said “children employed in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable workers in America. Ensuring their welfare is a priority.” The Department of Labor said the proposals aim to “bring parity between the rules for young workers employed in agricultural jobs and the more stringent rules that apply to those employed in nonagricultural workplaces.”
Currently, the department establishes a minimum age of 18 for hazardous work in nonagricultural employment, and 16 in agricultural employment. The proposed updates are based on the experience and recommendations of its Wage and Hour Division and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
But, despite that research, many question whether the proposed revisions make sense for the day-to-day operations of farms.
“We definitely have some concerns with what’s been proposed,” said Shawn Martini, director of communications for the Colorado Farm Bureau, specifically mentioning a proposed revision that would prevent youth younger than 16 from herding animals on horseback. “We’ll be submitting comments while we can to see if we can’t get some common sense put in place with these revisions.
“Hopefully we’re successful.”