New Labor Rules Worry Farmers, Educators

By Beacon Staff

Inside a greenhouse south of Kalispell, students in an agricultural science class scurried around under the watchful eye of teacher Justin Heupel. He hopes these students – sophomores from Flathead High School – are the future of agriculture and farming in Montana. But he’s also concerned.

New rules proposed by the U.S. Department of Labor would restrict what children below the age of 18 could do while working on farms and ranches. Proponents of the changes say the agricultural industry has had lax child labor regulations for too long. But critics, including Montana’s federal delegation, said bureaucrats thousands of miles away are not qualified to decide what a child can do on a farm. Now members of Congress are pushing for legislation to prevent the Labor Department from implementing the new rules.

Although Heupel’s class at the H.E. Robinson Vocational-Agricultural Education Center (where students learn everything from soil sciences to tractor maintenance) is unlikely to be affected, the teacher is still concerned that some of his younger students will be unable get work and hands-on training.

“They’ll just have another summer playing Nintendo and not a summer of working on their skills and figuring out what they want to do in the future,” he said.

On Sept. 2 last year, the Labor Department released a long list of proposed updates to the Fair Labor Standards Act. The new provisions would prevent anyone employed under the age of 16 from working with animals when they are branded, castrated or vaccinated; to work in a pen with an un-castrated male bovine, porcine or equine over six months old; to work on a ladder or scaffolding that is more than 6 feet off the ground; or to use powered machines, from an electric drill to a tractor. The regulations would also ban anyone under 18 years old from working in stockyards, grain elevators, feedlots, livestock exchanges and auctions.

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester said the change “threatens Montana’s agricultural tradition.”

“I know personally the importance of agricultural work to the personal development of young people in rural America,” Tester wrote in a letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. “By placing federal regulations between rural youth and activities that are essential to their personal development, the Department of Labor is crossing a line that should not be crossed.”

Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg said the new rules would harm family farms and were going too far.

“I just don’t think the bureaucrats at the Department of Labor get it,” Rehberg said. “Only in Washington D.C. would anyone assume that a faceless bureaucrat is better equipped to look out for a child’s best interest than a parent.”

The Labor Department says the new regulations will not change the Fair Labor Standard Act’s minimum age requirements for agricultural employment, only the tasks young people can complete. The rules still allow children working on a farm owned by their parents to participate in any task, even those that may be deemed hazardous.

Those who support the new rules, including advocates from the Child Labor Coalition, have said child farm labor laws are antiquated. According to an article published by the American Academy of Pediatrics last month, farm-related injuries tend to be worse than other work-related injuries. Between 2001 and 2006, there were on average 26,000 children injured from agricultural work every year in the nation; 3,732 of those children had to be hospitalized annually and an average of 84 children below the age of 19 were killed in agricultural work accidents every year. Advocates like Sally Greenberg, co-chair of the Child Labor Coalition, said it’s time for more restrictions.

“The Department of Labor’s proposed safety rules are rooted in expert research and designed to protect child farmworkers,” she wrote in a press release. “Agriculture has long been exempt from child labor and occupational safety protections granted to all other industries. As new farm equipment is developed and our knowledge of pesticides and other risks to children evolve, it only makes sense to update the list of tasks that are off limits to hired child farmworkers.”

However, opponents of the new rules noted recent statistics released by the United States Department of Agriculture that reported injuries to young farm workers have dropped in half in the last decade, from 13. 5 injuries per 1,000 farms in 2001 to 7.2 injuries per 1,000 in 2009.

Those same critics worry the rules could hurt organizations like the Future Farmers of America. Jaime Cargill, Montana’s FFA director, said the group is “much more than cows and plows,” but a major part of the program is supervised agricultural experiences, where young people have a paid or unpaid job in agriculture. She said the new rules could regulate those important experiences and, without practicing those skills, the kids will be less prepared.

“(The new rules) would have a very detrimental effect because most of what these students are learning are life skills,” she said.

She added that while there is a risk of injury in agricultural work, such risks exist everywhere.

“I think it comes down to common sense and wisdom. There are millions of kids across the United States raised on ranches and farms and they get injured, but kids get injured in the cities too,” she said. “We don’t stop football players from playing when they break a leg and it’s the same with ranches.”

Currently the Labor Department is working on re-proposing a portion of the regulations that would clarify what is known as the “parental exemption,” which allows children to work any job on a farm or ranch owned by a family member. According to a Labor Department spokesperson, until it is re-proposed and the public is given time to comment, none of the rules will be implemented.

Some members of Congress are working to stall the new regulations. In March, bills were introduced in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate that would prevent their implementation. Rehberg, Tester and Sen. Max Baucus supported the legislation.

Heupel, who has been teaching at the agricultural education center (part of School District 5) for eight years, said he is concerned that the new rules will derail students’ education. Although classes like his would likely remain unchanged, some of his younger students would be unable to apply their skills in summer or after-school jobs in the industry.

Iris Matulevich, a 16-year-old at Flathead High School who grew up working on a ranch, agreed. She said the new rules could prevent her from finding a summer job on a farm, even though she knows she is capable.

“Some of these rules are crazy and it’s really vague, so it’s hard to interpret,” she said. “I think they’re trying to protect kids, but I think they’re going too far.”

Heupel hopes the Labor Department will reconsider the new rules and add provisions that would protect educational experiences, including those where students are employed.

“There’s a lot of gray area and that’s sort of scary,” he said. “How will it all come out in the wash?”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.