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Farming Community Calls Foul

By Pettus L. Read – Director of Communications for Tennessee Farm Bureau

I grew up on a family farm that relied heavily on our extended family’s involvement to get the crops in, as well as the usual chores accomplished. My total work ethic was developed by the guidance of my family elders on that acreage. The trait of responsibility taught from those jobs, that in most cases required a lot of perspiration, was an honored trait that may not be accomplished to the same degree in schools of higher learning these days or even back then. During the last few months I have gone through numerous emotions and feelings pertaining to my experiences on the farm, comparing them to the Department of Labor’s efforts to regulate teenage work in agricultural settings. Just like my family, back in my early days, today’s farm family has high concern for the safety of young people who work in agriculture. But the federal Department of Labor recently has had some broad reaching regulations that are impractical in the real world.

As soon as those regulations began their movement in our nation’s Capital, the farming community sought help from the Tennessee Farm Bureau, who immediately took a position to oppose the proposed rules regulating farm youth, in some cases, completely out of normal farm work. At the urging of the Tennessee Farm Bureau, Sen. Lamar Alexander and Sen. Bob Corker have both co-sponsored a bill (SB 2221) to prevent the Department of Labor from enacting proposed rules regarding teenagers who work in agricultural settings. Because of their support and concern for the farming community, recent articles published in Tennessee newspapers have criticized their support for the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation’s position of opposing the proposed rules. One article has even wrongly criticized Senator Alexander based on misinformation for his support of the bill which is something the farming community has called foul on.

The Department of Labor currently has adequate regulations relating to agricultural child labor that restrict youth 16 and under from performing tasks that are “particularly hazardous.”  These regulations, known as hazardous occupation orders, are issued under the Fair Labor Standards Act and stipulate what tasks a youth may not perform on a farm.  The law, however, also clearly states that a youth working for a parent may perform any task.  The Department of Labor has traditionally interpreted this parental exemption to include all farms substantially owned by the parent or guardian.

Last September, however, the Department of Labor proposed new regulations to change that traditional interpretation, limiting the parental exemption only to farms “wholly-owned” by a parent.  This proposed interpretation meant that a brother and sister who jointly owned a farm themselves through a partnership or limited liability corporation would no longer be allowed to hire their nieces, nephews or grandchildren to help work on the farm.  Such a proposed interpretation significantly restricted the statutory exemption.  It was only after an outpouring of critical comments – numbering nearly 10,000 – from interested individuals and members of Congress, including Senator Alexander, that the Department of Labor announced it would re-propose the parental exemption portion of the rule; however, it is unclear what the new proposal will include or when it will be announced.

There has also been extensive discussion about the rule’s prohibition of power-driven equipment and whether it would prohibit youth under the age of 16 from operating simple tools like a battery operated screwdriver.  There is no question that it would.  Taken directly from the Department of Labor’s proposed regulation, (listed as Ag. HO #2), a youth under age 16 is prohibited from “any activity involving physical contact” with “all machines, equipment, implements…operated by any power source other than human hand or foot power,” and the Department of Labor has explicitly stated that this includes “batteries.” It appears quite explicit and clear in the rule that the department proposes to outlaw the use of battery-powered implements like screwdrivers.   Moreover, expert comments submitted to the department support this reading of the proposal, including the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health.

The Farm Bureau, and the farmers and ranchers they represent, are well aware of the risks involved in agriculture and support appropriate regulatory safeguards.  They are joined in their efforts by virtually every agricultural organization, including FFA and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.  It is also important to note that the number of injuries to youths on farms has decreased drastically under the current regulations. In an Agricultural Safety Survey published on April 5, 2012 by the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, agriculture related injuries to youth under 20 years of age have decreased 54 percent from 2001 to 2009.  Moreover, work-related injuries only contributed to a quarter of youth injuries occurring on farm operations.

We all are concerned with the safety of youth working on farms; however, we support appropriate federal regulations in this area, based on reliable data and real risks. Farms do not need impractical regulations. We asked for the help from Sen. Alexander in dealing with these regulations and just like we expect help to be on the farm, he has been there. And as we say on the farm, “Much obliged, Senator.”

*Pettus L. Read is editor of the Tennessee Farm Bureau News and Director of Communications for the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation.  He may be contacted by e-mail at pread@tfbf.com

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