Child Labor Update: Know the Facts

Wilmer Stoneman, Associate Director
VFB Govermental Relations

With the introduction of legislation designed to block implementation of the Department of Labor’s (DOL) proposed child labor regulations, press coverage of the issue – both positive and negative – has increased.  Some articles critical of the effort to block the DOL proposal contain inaccuracies and misstatements.  One recent instance occurred  in which Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) was criticized for supporting AFBF’s position.

It’s important to remember the facts when you come across one of these articles.

America’s farm and ranch families place a high priority on assuring that everyone who works on our farms and ranches, especially young people, are protected by appropriate safety measures. There is no doubt that the Department of Labor’s proposed rules regarding child labor will have a direct negative impact on our families and our farms and ranches.

Clearly, Congress intended there to be a parental exemption regarding the jobs they ask their children to carry out on the farm. It is clear that DOL has the authority to draft regulations relating to agricultural child labor that restrict youth 16 and under from performing tasks that are “particularly hazardous.” These regulations, known as hazardous occupation (HO) orders, are issued under the Fair Labor Standards Act and stipulate what tasks a youth may not perform on a farm. The law, however, also clearly states that a youth working for a parent or person standing in the place of the parent may perform any task.

The parental exemption has been violated. DOL has traditionally interpreted this parental exemption to include all farms substantially owned by the parent or guardian. Last September, however, DOL proposed to change that traditional interpretation, limiting the parental exemption only to farms “wholly-owned” by a parent or person standing in the place of a parent. This proposed interpretation meant that a brother and sister who jointly owned a farm themselves through a partnership or limited liability corporation would no longer be allowed to hire their nieces, nephews or grandchildren to help work on the farm. Such a proposed interpretation significantly restricted the statutory exemption. It was only after an outpouring of critical comments – numbering nearly 10,000 – from interested individuals and members of Congress that DOL announced it would re-propose the parental exemption portion of the rule; however, it is unclear what the new proposal will include or when it will be announced.

 There is no question that a number of simple everyday tasks would be prohibited by the DOL proposal. For example, there has been extensive discussion about the rule’s prohibition on the use of power-driven equipment and whether it would prohibit youth under the age of 16 from operating simple tools like a battery operated screwdriver. There is no question that it would. Taken directly from DOL’s proposed regulation, Ag. HO #2 prohibits a youth under age 16 from “any activity involving physical contact” with “all machines, equipment, implements…operated by any power source other than human hand or foot power,” and DOL has explicitly stated that this includes “batteries.” It appears quite explicit and clear in the rule that the department proposes to outlaw the use of battery-powered implements like screwdrivers. Moreover, expert comments submitted to the department support this reading of the DOL proposal. The National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) referred to the proposed Ag. HO #2 and specifically noted that the “the proposed definition also exceeds the recommendations made by NIOSH [2002] and would prohibit the use of small handheld battery-powered equipment (e.g., a flashlight) that is not prohibited by any nonagricultural HO.”

 Farm Bureau members are well aware of the risks involved in agriculture and support appropriate regulatory safeguards. We are joined in our efforts by virtually every agricultural organization, including FFA and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.

The number of injuries to youths on farms has decreased drastically even without the DOL proposal. An Agricultural Safety Survey, published on April 5, 2012 by the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, shows that agriculture-related injuries to youth under 20 years of age decreased 54 percent from 2001 to 2009. Moreover, work-related injuries only contributed to a quarter of youth injuries occurring on farm operations.

Farmers and ranchers will continue to be committed to the safety when it comes to the younger members of our families making valuable contributions to our family businesses. Ensuring the safety of our children is our priority. The DOL proposal, however, extends caution beyond recognition, to the point of having severe negative effects on farm families. The proposal really does strip away the ability of youth to work in agriculture, and it nullifies the desires and goals of parents to pass on to our children the traditions and values that farm work provides. There is concern that the DOL simply does not understand the societal structure of the farming community, how farms are organized and how farm families help one another. While we support appropriate federal regulations in this area, those regulations should be based on reliable data and real risks.

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