Officials to revise parental exemption in proposed changes to child farm labor laws | TheFencePost.com

Officials to revise parental exemption in proposed changes to child farm labor laws

Eric Brown
Greeley, Colo.

A proposal that would restrict children’s roles on farms won’t be quite as stringent than some had feared since U.S. Department of Labor officials backed down after hearing from thousands of farmers and ranchers.

Labor department officials said Wednesday the new language in proposed revisions to child farm labor laws would allow parental exemptions for children whose parents are “substantial” owners of a farming operation. Prior to the announcement, the proposed revisions – first introduced last year and aimed at strengthening safety standards for young agricultural workers – allowed exemptions only for children whose parents “wholly” owned the farming operation.

While Wednesday’s announcement provided some relief to the family farmers and ranchers who feel the proposed changes are over-reaching, many in the agriculture industry still question why any revisions to child farm labor laws are needed at all.

Labor officials said during a conference call with media Wednesday that the decision to re-propose the parental exemption portion of the rule came in response to requests from the public and members of Congress.

Agriculture organizations and farmers and ranchers, including many in Weld County, had feared the proposed rules would upset traditions where children often work alongside their parents and relatives to learn how a farm operates. They stressed that the original proposal did not consider the thousands of farms nationwide that are owned by closely held corporations or partnerships of family members and other relatives.

More than 30 lawmakers from farm states – including U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo. – had called on the labor department to rescind the rules.

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During the teleconference, labor officials said their agency would continue to work with the agriculture department to ensure the new rules would reflect the comments from rural communities. During a public comment period, the Department of Labor received about 18,000 comments regarding its proposed revisions.

The Department of Labor’s re-proposed parental exemption portion of the rule is expected to be published for public comment by early summer. Meanwhile, the department will continue to review the comments received regarding other portions of the proposed rule for inclusion in a final rule.

The Department of Labor’s proposed revisions to child farm labor laws – the first such revisions since 1970 – would ban children younger than 16 from using most power-driven equipment and prevent those younger than 18 from working in feed lots, grain bins and stockyards – at least young workers who wouldn’t fall under the parental exemption.

The Department of Labor first published the proposed revisions in September – about a month after a rural Colorado company pleaded guilty in federal court 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. The fatality rate for child farm workers is four times higher than in other industries, Department of Labor officials have stated.

Local farmers, ranchers and ag organizations have said they understand that agriculture jobs can be dangerous, but also see a need to keep young people interested in an industry where the average age of the farm operator has been increasing for years. Those producers – some who hire neighbors who might not fall under a parental exemption – have been opposed to the revisions in general ever since they were first published this fall.

While many have expressed concerns about the proposed revisions potentially damaging work ethics for youth, many also spoke up about what it could do to 4-H and FFA programs.

“We desperately need young people coming back into agriculture, and we have young people who are interested,” said Gege Ellzey, a dairy producer near Galeton and president of the Weld County Farm Bureau said. “So why are we making it more difficult to give them learning opportunities?”