Limitations for farm kidsPublished 1:21pm Friday, April 27, 2012
Feds may put age limits on ag labor in effort to protect teens
It’s no secret that kids drive tractors, raise cattle and do back-breaking farmwork — all before they can legally drive cars or run cash registers at their hometown gas stations.
But the U.S. Department of Labor aims to change that in an effort to reduce youth farm-related injuries and deaths and bring equality with non-agricultural jobs that have more stringent age requirements.
According to the DOL, “The Fair Labor Standards Act currently sets age 12 as the legal limit for farm work with exemptions available for children as young as age 10 or 11.” Age 14 is another point at which farmworking kids can receive more exemptions from labor laws.
While kids who work on their family farms will be exempt from any of the proposed changes, plenty of others would have to consider doing something else.
Some changes aim to prohibit workers younger than 16 from working with heavy machinery, driving tractors, working around timber or from certain heights, according to the DOL. Other proposals include banning anyone younger than 18 from working in grain elevators, bins, silos, feedlots and stockyards.
Ask Kyle Sivesind, 17, of Racine. He’s done his share of farmwork and knows farmers aren’t hiring kids to just carry buckets. He said with many tasks off limits, not much is left for some teenage and younger farmers.
“Last summer when I was working, that’s mostly what I did — I was out on a tractor, and I enjoyed doing it,” he said.
Though Sivesind is now old enough to be exempt from most of the proposed changes, he said the new laws could put farmers and hard-working kids in a pinch.
“It would put a big strain on farmers, I think,” Sivesind said, who added that he notices many farmers hiring kids to not only give them chances but to possibly ensure that they have help in the future.
“I know a lot of farmers who like hiring high school students just to get them ready for the workforce,” he added.
DOL officials report that safety is a big concern, especially because at least 6 percent of the agricultural workforce is younger than 18 and many of them may be inexperienced around dangerous equipment. Furthermore, rules for farm-working youth have not been updated since the 1970 Fair Labor Standards Act, and fatality rates for farm-working youth are reportedly four times higher than non-farming youths.
“Children employed in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable workers in America,” said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis. “Ensuring their welfare is a priority of the department, and this proposal is another element of our comprehensive approach.”
Yet a National Agricultural Statistics Survey of four separate years — 2001, 2004, 2006 and 2009 — shows that working-youth injuries and deaths on farms decreased in each sampled year.
And Sivesind said he’s never been nervous about his safety while farming.
“Not at all — because every person I’ve worked for, they’ve drilled safety into our heads,” Sivesind said. “They make you double-check everything you do. I’ve never felt nervous. I felt really comfortable, and I know my friends would say the same thing.”
Though the issue of changing the labor laws has been swirling around since the DOL issued its proposed guidelines in fall 2011, officials have again been re-addressing the issue in the past several days, including Sarah Palin, who bashed the Obama administration about the proposed changes.
The DOL has repeatedly pointed out that the entire issue has fostered many misconceptions, such as people worrying about their kids being affected on their family farms. The DOL is still slogging through comments from a public comment period it held, and an official ruling on the proposed laws may be in the near future.