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New law would target young farm workers

Jeff Caldwell 10/26/2011 @ 11:37am Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

A lot of farms depend on the labor of strong-backed farm kids. But, some of those farm kids may be affected if current efforts in Washington, D.C., reach fruition.

Lawmakers have proposed changes to child labor laws under the Department of Labor (DOL). Currently, young farm workers under the age of 16 are exempt from DOL child labor laws if they're working on their family's farm while "non-exempt" young people are those hired by employers outside their family. Currently, young people under the age of 16 are prohibited by law from operating a list of power equipment, from tractors to forage harvesters. They're also prohibited from working around some livestock.

Proposed changes in the DOL rules for younger farm workers would bar non-family farm workers under 16 from operating more equipment, working in manure pits, handling pesticides and working with livestock, among other jobs, according to Iowa State University Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation director Roger McEowen.

"The DOL’s proposed rules only impact 'hired farm workers,' not children working on farms that are owned or operated by their parents," he says. "The proposed rules do not address, however, the question of whether children of parents operating farms owned by a legal entity can qualify for the exemption. Technically, the children would be employees of the entity, not the parent."

A lot of farmers say that, while good, thorough instruction on some of the more potentially dangerous jobs on the farm is absolutely essential, that training -- whether offered by a family member or not -- is typically overlooked when young people are involved in the farm safety conversation.

"What a lot of non-farm people see is a 'youngster' driving what could be dangerous machinery. What they don't see is all the instruction that Dad, Grandpa, or Uncle Bob had given them on how to safely operate the machines," says Agriculture.com Farm Business Talk senior contributor Nebrfarmr.

The real responsibility lies in the hands of the farm operator or person employing younger laborers on the farm, farmers say.

"A lot has to do with how the parent or employer treats the youngster or employee. Do they take time to properly train them on all equipment, make them read the operators manual, then use that piece of equipment at a slow speed or rate with lots of supervision untill they have proven they can handle it in a safe manner?" says Farm Business Talk frequent contributor SpringBrookFarm. "I think it all comes down to experience. Instead of spending money on enforcing more restrictions that impede our daily lives, they should take that money and use it to educate."

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