FFA, 4-H clubs worried proposed child labor rules could cut kids’ experiences short
For Ty Walter, what he describes as the greatest moment of his life took place just over a week ago.
Looking back now, it’s tough for him to wrap his mind around that fact that – under revisions proposed to child labor laws that would strengthen safety standards for young agricultural workers – not all FFA and 4-H participants would have the opportunity to achieve what he did and experience that sense of accomplishment.
His whole life, the Hudson-area teen, who recently brought home the National FFA Proficiency Award in Beef Production-Entrepreneurship Award from the National FFA Convention in Indianapolis, has been working his own cattle herd – the one that earned him his prestigious honor – on a ranch that was owned by both his parents and grandparents.
Because his family owns the farm he grew up on, and because he’s now an adult, he’s one of the lucky ones, as he describes it.
The U.S. Department of Labor is proposing revisions that would extend regulations to prohibit child agricultural work with animals, along with pesticides, timber, manure pits and storage bins. The restrictions would also include 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.
Grain elevators and bins, silos, feed lots, stockyards and livestock exchanges and auctions would be off limits to nonagricultural workers younger than 18.
Those proposed revisions would not apply to children working on farms owned by their parents. That works for Walter – now a 19-year-old who has built his own herd of 70 cattle from one heifer that was given to him for his first birthday – but doesn’t work for many others who participate in FFA and 4-H, he and others say.
Walter, who mentioned that he’s worked with livestock “about since he could walk,” feels he would have lost out on many years of great experiences, and certainly wouldn’t have recently claimed his prestigious national FFA award, if these revisions were put in place and he wasn’t a child of a family-owned farm.
“It definitely would have taken away a lot for me,” Walter said. “Winning that award was probably the best experience of my life, and it could really go on to open a lot of doors for me.
“I’d hate to see – if these rules are put in place – that experience be taken away from anyone,” added Walter, who’s now a freshman at Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne studying agriculture business. “It shouldn’t matter if a kid grew up on a farm or not, if they have an interest in agriculture, let them get as involved with 4-H and FFA as much as they want to, and give them the learning experience they need.”
Walter – along with his parents, Terry and Becky, and numerous other farmers in the area – are worried regarding some of the proposed revisions and what kids could and couldn’t do on the farm if put in place. While many have expressed concerns over the revisions potentially damaging work ethics and valuable lessons for youth, many are also now speaking up about what it could do to 4-H and FFA programs.
“It’s something I’m definitely hearing about from parents and people in the community,” said Jarrod Bessire, FFA adviser at Briggsdale School, whose chapter recently finished in second place for the 2011 National FFA Model Chapter of Innovation Award at the national convention in October. “They’re concerned, and that’s understandable.
“Agriculture plays a big part in the lives of youth around here and in many other places, and there’s a lot of uncertainty to what’s going on now,” added Bessire, who noted that many of his 36 FFA students have livestock and crop-based projects, and, if not living on a farm under their parents’ name, might not be able to continue those projects if the proposed revisions go though. “We all agree that kids – and everyone else, for that matter – need to be as safe as possible, but we need to make sure we’re still providing good experiences for kids, whether it comes through FFA or 4-H, and a good foundation in agriculture.
“And there needs to be some clarity about what’s being proposed. It would be better if those affected had a little more time to understand what’s happening.”
Because of the lack of clarity, it comes as a relief to many that the deadline to comment about the Department of Labor’s proposed revisions has been extended. If passed, the revisions will mark the first update to the Fair Labor Standards Act concerning child farm workers since 1970.
The Department of Labor’s proposals have been on the horizon for months but were just announced in September.
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. In addition to that 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.
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.
Like Bessire, Keith Maxey – Colorado State University’s extension director in Weld County, where about 900 kids are involved in 4-H – doesn’t want to see rules that would take away agriculture learning opportunities for the youth.
“Myself, like a lot of people, don’t know all of the details regarding all of these revisions, so I can’t speak against anything specifically. But I don’t think any of us want to see opportunities taken away from the youth,” said Maxey, who noted that some of the Weld County 4-H youth who have livestock projects aren’t kids living on family farms. “I’m definitely a supporter of safety, but 4-H and FFA provide many great learning experience, and we need to maintain that as much as possible.”
Speaking on behalf of the Walter family, Bessire, Maxey and others who are concerned, a variety of groups – including the Colorado Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farmers organization – are voicing their concerns with the revision.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Labor said the department cannot make statements regarding the public input received until the public comment period ends on Dec. 1.
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