Young farm worker rules misunderstood, Labor Department says

By JENNIFER CHEN

Capital News Service

LANSING – A proposed revision of federal regulations for young farm workers is in need of clarification, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

“Children employed in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable workers in America. Ensuring their welfare is a priority of the department, and this proposal is another element of our comprehensive approach,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.

The revision aims to better regulate child labor in agriculture, including a better interpretation of the “parental exemption,” according to the department.

The department said the proposed rules would not eliminate the parental exemption, created in 1966, which allows children of any age to work on even hazardous tasks on a farm owned by their parent.

“We appreciate and respect the role of parents in raising their children, and assigning tasks and chores to their children on farms and of relatives in keeping them out of harm’s way,” said Solis.

New regulations would prevent hired farm workers younger than 16 from performing hazardous tasks, but would not affect children working on farms owned or operated by their parents.

But agricultural organizations are strongly critical of the federal initiative.

“The proposed rules, by placing a near-total prohibition on contact with any equipment or device powered by any source other than hand or foot, could place a near-complete ban on youth younger than 16 working in traditional farm activities,” said Trent Hilding, president of the Montcalm County Farm Bureau.

In addition, Hilding said, the Farm Bureau is more interested than anyone else in assuring safe farm operations. It doesn’t want young teenagers working in dangerous jobs.

Even so, Hilding said he is still concerned that the rules would make it illegal to employ young relatives, even on family-owned farms.

“All parties need to be consulted to look at the real issues, rather than simply eliminating these great work opportunities in American agriculture,” he said.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said only 4 percent of working youth are in agriculture, but 40 percent of fatalities among working youth are associated with machines, equipment or facilities related to agriculture.
“We don’t want to blur the line between teaching kids about a good day’s hard work and putting them in situations more safely handled by adults,” he said.

However, Don Lipton, executive director for public relations of the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington, said, “Some parts of the proposed rule are totally unreasonable and unrealistic. We are trying to give suggestions to the Department of Labor to change them.”

The Labor Department said it would continue to consider feedback from the public before the regulations are finalized.

© 2012, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.

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