The Department of Labor is likely to be in the hot seat Thursday when a House subcommittee reviews proposed regulations that could restrict how children work on U.S. farms and ranches. The plan, which has generated more than 10,000 public comments, is drawing fire from both Republicans and Democrats. Children working on farms owned by their parents would be exempt, but critics say the proposals still go too far. For example, the proposed rules would: Significantly limit contact with tractors and combines for hired youth below the age of 16.
Expand existing restrictions to prohibit most, if not all, operation of power-driven machinery by hired youth under age 16. 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.
Prohibit most herding activities and involvement with activities that might inflict pain on animals by hired youth; The rule holds youth under 16 years old "lack the cognitive ability" to herd animals on horseback, specifically outlining no cutting or separating cattle. Further, the proposed rule would prohibit youth from "engaging, or assisting, in animal husbandry practices." These activities outlined include branding, breeding, dehorning, vaccinating, castrating, and treating sick or injured animals.
Prohibit hired youth from working at a height greater than 6 feet above another elevation, restricting activities such as fruit harvest, stacking hay and others.
Prohibit hired youth under 16 from working inside a fruit, forage or grain storage container, or inside a manure pit, or in the cultivation, harvesting and curing of tobacco.
Prohibit hired youth in both agricultural and non-agricultural employment from using electronic (including communication) devices while operating power-driven equipment.
Rep. Scott Tipton, R-CO, who chairs the House Small Business Committee‟s Agriculture, Energy and Trade Subcommittee, will examine the proposed Labor Department rulemaking, with representatives from the department, Farm Bureau, FFA and the West Virginia Dept. of Agriculture during Thursday‟s hearing.
"We need to be able to communicate that these rules will have impacts on real people, real families and real jobs. The administration and the policies floating down through bureaucracy often fail to understand the impact of those rules, which have the effect of law," he told Agri-Pulse. "Once you put a rule into place there are often unintended consequences. With this hearing, we‟re hoping we can shine the light of day on this, because we need to make sure that we‟re standing up for our constituents and their concerns."
Tipton is not alone. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-MO, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, fondly recalls growing up and working for his grandparents on farms and says he was often their "favorite piece of farm equipment." On Facebook, he asked farmers and ranchers to send their own concerns on the proposed rule in hopes of sharing them on the House floor.
"I think that sometimes bureaucrats, good intentioned, can sit in a little room in Washington, D.C. and come up with all these things that they believe will make America better. And this simply won‟t do it," he told Agri-Pulse. "This is going to do damage to the institution of farming. So I'm going to oppose it and I hope that those of us who are knowledgeable about the farm world will speak out."
Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-MO, outlined several problems with the proposal in a Jan. 18 letter to Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, which was signed by 22 other Republicans and Democrats. "The department proposes to define the term power-driven equipment to include all machines operated by any power source other than human hand or foot power that could be interpreted to mean that a younger worker is banned from operating a flashlight," he pointed out in the letter.
Representatives from the Labor Department argue that the rules are long overdue attempt to modernize rules last updated in the 1970‟s. When the new regulations were first proposed last fall, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis described children working in agriculture as "some of the most vulnerable workers in America,"
The Department‟s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that the fatality rate for agricultural workers who are 15 to 17 years of age is 4.4 times greater than the risk for the average worker in that age range. The most common cause of agricultural deaths among young workers is farm machinery, with tractors involved in over half of the fatalities.