Politics
WASHINGTON, DC: U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) WASHINGTON, DC: U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)  

Rural kids, parents angry about Labor Dept. rule banning farm chores

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Patrick Richardson
Journalist

That narrow “parental exception” has quickly become a political football in U.S. agriculture. The Farm Bureau and one other national agricultural group told TheDC that it would only apply to parents who “wholly own” their own farms.

That would rule out kids working on an uncle’s farm, or a grandfather’s, and it would ban teens from working on farms where ownership is split — even among several generations of the same family. It would also mean teens couldn’t be around when their friends are doing farm work.

Estimates vary on the number of children who live on farms their parents ”wholly own.” One state-level Farm Bureau cited an internal estimate of less than 30 percent. That number, the organization said, takes into account the fact that many farms in animal agriculture are part-owned by the large food companies that ultimately purchase the mat after slaughter.

More than 10,000 letters and emails poured in when the regulation was opened up for public comment in late 2011. Boswell’s objection stems from Labor Secretary Solis’ decision to give the public a second chance to weigh in after the first round of public opinion was decidedly in favor of letting kids participate fully in agriculture.

Boswell also chafed at the government’s rationale — injury rates — for bringing farms strictly into line with child labor laws.

“They have said the number of injuries are higher for children than in non-ag industries,” she said. But everyone in agriculture, Boswell insisted, “makes sure youth work in tasks that are age-appropriate.”

The safety training requirements strike many in agriculture as particularly strange, given an injury rate among young people that is already falling rapidly.

According to a United States Department of Agriculture study, farm accidents among youth fell nearly 40 percent between 2001 and 2009, to 7.2 injuries per 1,000 farms.

Clark said the regulations are vague and meddlesome.

“It’s so far-reaching,” he exclaimed, “kids would be prohibited from working on anything ‘power take-off’ driven, and anything with a work-height over six feet — which would include the tractor I’m on now.”

The way the regulations are currently written, he added, would prohibit children under 16 from using battery powered screwdrivers, since their motors, like those of a tractor, are defined as “power take-off driven.”

And jobs that could “inflict pain on an animal” would also be off-limits for kids. But “inflicting pain,” Clark explained, is left undefined: If it included something like putting a halter on a steer, 4-H and FFA animal shows would be a thing of the past.

In a letter to The Department of Labor in December, Montana Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg complained that the animal provision would also mean young people couldn’t “see veterinary medicine in practice … including a veterinarian’s own children accompanying him or her to a farm or ranch.”

Boswell told TheDC that the new farming regulations could be finalized as early as August. She claimed farmers could soon find The Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division inspectors on their land, citing them for violations.

“In the last three years that division has grown 30 to 40 percent,” Boswell said. Some Farm Bureau members, she added, have had inspectors on their land checking on conditions for migrant workers, only to be cited for allowing their own children to perform chores that the Labor Department didn’t think were age-appropriate.

It’s something Kansas Republican Senator Jerry Moran believes simply shouldn’t happen.

During a March 14 hearing, Moran blasted Hilda Solis for getting between rural parents and their children.

“The consequences of the things that you put in your regulations lack common sense,” Moran said.

“And in my view, if the federal government can regulate the kind of relationship between parents and their children on their own family’s farm, there is almost nothing off-limits in which we see the federal government intruding in a way of life.”

The Department of Labor did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

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This article was updated after publication to clarify the Department of Labor’s proposed rules related to the narrow “parental exception.” The update comprises the first four paragraphs, above, on page 2 of the article.

Watch Sen. Moran lecture Hilda Solis: