Dept. of Labor to Send Ag-Youths A’packin’

Regulatory war has been waged against another job-creating sector of the American economy. The U.S. Department of Labor has set forth new proposals restricting children under the age of 16 that are not children of the farmers from working in the agriculture industry. Should the DOL really be confident enough with the reduced unemployment rate from 9 percent to 8.6 percent to comfortably cut job opportunities for the prospective future farmers of America?

Current labor laws allow children under 16 to work when they aren’t in school.  Children of farmers may be employed by their parents at any age at any time in any occupation on a farm owned or operated by their parents. But many children work on farms that are either owned by a grandparent, uncle or aunt. Also, if parents do not have full ownership of the property on which they farm, the exemption would not apply. Many agricultural producers also lease land to graze cattle or to harvest more acres. This being a common practice for family farms, it would be unreasonable and inefficient for children to be able to work on certain acres that are owned by the family and not be able to work on others that are leased by the family.

Jobs are being yanked out of young Americans’ hands that are ready and willing to work. These new proposals hinder a child under the age of 16 from participating in most agricultural activities that are essential in modern agriculture. They are restricted from working in pesticide handling, timber operations, manure pits, and storage bins, or working on ladders that are over six feet high. They are prohibited from handling “power-driven equipment” and operating tractors. Youths would be banned from being hired to brand, vaccinate, castrate, or treat animals, as well as herd animals on horseback. Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg, Chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, states:

Hiring a neighbor, nephew, or niece to help with branding is a common practice on ranches and provides valuable experience to learn animal behavior and understand at a young age how to safely deal with livestock.  Additionally, any youth wanting to see veterinary medicine in practice would be prevented from doing so under this proposal, including a veterinarian’s own children accompanying him or her to a farm or ranch.  As with other sections in this proposal, this would discourage young people from taking an interest in ranching and veterinary medicine, and would be detrimental to the future to those industries.

Rehberg, an outspoken opponent to these new rules, alleges that the rules are too open to wide interpretations. For example children under 16 would not be allowed to assist in any task that involves inflicting pain, like branding or vaccinating. Rehberg points out, “If you were too take your baby to have its vaccinations, you’re going to have to take it to get shots in the arm or in the butt and I’s going to hurt. How do you say a vaccination is inflicting pain even if it’s keeping the animal healthy? That’s not very bright.”

These extra regulations are said to be safeguarding youths who work in the hazardous environment of agriculture. Rehberg’s letter to the DOL notes the National Farm Medicine Center’s finding that childhood injury rates on farms fell 59 percent from 1998-2009, stating “it does not make sense to crack down on an industry that is improving its safety record without government involvement.  In our current economic climate, we need to do everything we can to encourage economic growth. These new regulations are a detriment to that growth, and are pushing an industry that that is moving in the right direction on its own.”

These federal restrictions on the imperative hands-on experience in learning to manage and operate agricultural production deter the preservation of family farms in America. Of the two million U.S. farms, 98 percent of them are family-owned.

Nebraska Senators Mike Johanns and Ben Nelson were instrumental in getting the DOL to extend its comment period on this issue. Though Johanns acknowledges the necessity for workplace safety for all, he states, “This proposed rule raises serious questions about the administration’s understanding of the agricultural economy.” Nelson states, “One of every three jobs in Nebraska is tied to agriculture. We need to increase opportunities for our family farmers and ranchers to strengthen our rural economies, not threaten them with new, unneeded regulations from Washington.”