Family farm labor pains

by Bernard Shire
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There have always been restrictions on the type of work children below a certain age can do when working on farms or at meat processing plants, especially when the operation is small and family owned. New regulations proposed by the US Dept. of Labor would add restrictions to what work children can do on the family farm, or at small, family owned meat processing companies. Anything DOL views as “hazardous” would be banned.

The government describes new proposed regulations involving kids and agriculture as efforts to increase their safety. But farmers, including those who raise cattle for slaughter, and small meat-processing companies, some of which raise their own cattle and then slaughter and process them, describe the new regulations as an attack on the rural way of life by the 98 percent of Americans who aren’t involved in agriculture but depend on farms and food processors for what they eat.

The new restrictions, among other things, would keep children aged 16 and below away from the riskiest work, including driving tractors or doing work at the top of tall ladders. These proposals would limit greatly the kind of work children could do in agriculture, and would keep kids safer, proponents say. Opponents of the new rules say they would hurt family farms and meat- and poultry-processing businesses, and to a great degree, changing agricultural life in the US as we’ve known it for a long time. Youth would also be barred from working with animals, including raising them, or doing any work involving storage bins, product raw materials or be allowed to handle pesticides. They also couldn’t work in stockyards, feedlots or livestock auctions.

While the rulemaking would include an exception for kids working for their parents on a “family farm,” this exception could stop a lot of kids from coming to do work on the weekend, including cousins and relatives who are not children of the establishment’s owners. Originally, it seemed the new, stricter regulations would apply to what are generally called “family farms.” But it soon became apparent these regs would also apply to meat-processing plants – generally, the smaller ones where youngsters might be working, as well as even corporate farms and facilities.

Of course, there are restrictions right now on youngsters doing this kind of work – they’ve been in effect for more than 30 years – but they tend to be enforced pretty much by farmers and plant owners themselves. Tasks tend to be assigned by adults to kids that are appropriate to their skills and their ages. These new regulations would change that, possibly replacing common sense with bureaucratic rules that might not always be appropriate, but would have be followed at all times, with no exceptions. Opponents of the new regulations say very few youths under the age of 16 perform hazardous work on farms or processing facilities.

Back to the drawing board
One major objection to the new rules is they would have prevented youth under the age of 18 from working directly with livestock. Another major objection is banning youth from working on farms or processing facilities owned by relatives or that are incorporated. Today, a lot of agricultural businesses, even smaller ones, are not owned by a single family, but by a number of family members, and even people outside the immediate family.

So, the US Dept. of Labor is going back to the drawing board and is planning to re-propose some of these rules and regulations this summer. The DOL did not expect the outcry over the new rules when it wrote them. This changed plan may take a broader view of youngsters doing work on family agriculture businesses and farms. One exemption would permit 15-year-olds to operate machinery with the permission of a parent or a grandparent. The changes should also be applied to youth belonging to 4-H and FFA, but it’s not clear yet if they would. One farmer asked if the government was going to outlaw children helping their mothers to bake cookies in the kitchen because they might get their hand caught in the blender.

Keeping youngsters out of cattle feedlots, stopping them from operating any power equipment and preventing them from riding horses on farms, ranches and other agricultural establishments could also be banned by the new rules.

Opponents of the stricter regulations are voicing concern that stricter rules could limit the number of kids getting into the agriculture industry, by limiting their exposure to it now.

More than 10,000 comments on the proposed rules have been received so far. Once they are reviewed, the US Dept. of Labor expects to publish new regulations, probably with some changes.

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