New child labor laws address agriculture sector, likely hurt family farms

In its first such move since 1970, the U.S. Department of Labor is taking aim at risky exposures for minors, and the proposed rules could spell changes for family farming operations.

The proposal (also embedded below), according to the DOL, would “strengthen the safety requirements for young workers employed in agriculture and related fields.” The revisions would impact the Fair Labor Standards Act that currently bars young workers from certain tasks, and are expected to bring restrictions on young agricultural workers more in line with those that already exist for young people who work outside of agriculture.

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

The proposal would prohibit agricultural work with animals and in pesticide handling, timber operations, manure pits and storage bins. The dangers of working in and around grain storage bins have become more transparent during the past year as 51 men and boys have found themselves trapped and 26 of those have died in accidents that take only a few seconds to become deadly.

It would prohibit farm workers under age 16 from participating in the cultivation, harvesting and curing of tobacco. And it would prohibit youth in both agricultural and non-agricultural employment from using electronic, including communication, devices while operating power-driven equipment.

The department also is proposing to create a new non-agricultural hazardous occupations order that would prevent children under 18 from being employed in the storing, marketing and transporting of farm product raw materials. Prohibited places of employment would include country grain elevators, grain bins, silos, feed lots, stockyards, livestock exchanges and livestock auctions.

Additionally, the proposal would prohibit farm workers under 16 from operating almost all power-driven equipment. A similar prohibition has existed as part of the non-agricultural child labor provisions for more than 50 years. A limited exemption would permit some student learners to operate certain farm implements and tractors, when equipped with proper rollover protection structures and seat belts, under specified conditions.

Although the rule is supposed to keep current exemptions for children working on a family-farm, Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers said prior to viewing the full proposal that he is not completely convinced.

“We just had some legal research done for one of our members. That was to clarify whether or not it makes any difference if their family farm is an LLC versus a sole proprietorship,” Gasperini told Delta Farm Press. “According to most lawyers, it does make a difference. If your family farm is an LLC, the child doesn’t work for the parents solely. That’s a bit scary and into a gray area. Actually some of the lawyers said it isn’t gray at all — that it’s very clear the child is like any other that steps on the farm to work without exemptions.”

Gasperini said the issue of of concern because most family farms have now been set up a LLC.

In follow-up to the questions raised by Gasperini, federal officials said, “Where the ownership or operation of the farm is vested in persons other than the parent, such as a business entity, corporation or partnership (unless wholly owned by the parent(s)), the exemption would not apply.”

Justin Feldman, worker health and safety advocate for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division, said the new proposals were “welcome, but overdue.”

“Agriculture is one of the most dangerous sectors for workers in the U.S., and it is especially hazardous for youths. Young people employed in agricultural work suffer fatalities at rates six times higher than their counterparts in other industries,” said Feldman.

The group described the 40-year-old rules that currently serve child labor law in the U.S. as “antiquated and grossly inadequate.”

Public comment is open on the proposal until Nov. 1, and a public hearing will be scheduled shortly after that time.

Federal Register, 9/2/2011, DOL Wage & Hour Division