Iowa Public Television


Labor Department Called to Task over Who Can Work on Farm

posted on February 3, 2012

Hello, I'm Mark Pearson.  As analysts continue to say the U.S. economy may be years away from a full recovery, there are signs that conditions are slowly, if not steadily, improving.

According to the Department of Labor, a key economic indicator is on the rise.  In January, the U.S. unemployment rate fell to 8.3 percent – the lowest in nearly three years.

Employers created 243,000 new jobs in January, nearly 100,000 higher than analyst expectations.

The stubbornly high figure of 12.8 million unemployed Americans is the lowest in three years.

With increased employment, factory orders were on the rise – up 1.1 percent as companies restocked their shelves.

The good news was not lost on Wall street as the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose more than 150 points at the opening bell.

As more people are hired and the economy begins to strengthen, the importance of a good days work is nowhere more important than in farm country.  Anyone who has grown up in rural America knows chores begin at an early age.

But the barn yard can be a dangerous place – especially for children.

Since 1938, child labor laws have protected children from being employed in potentially perilous jobs. In 1966, the Labor Department put exemptions in place for children working for their parents on family farms and ranches.

To comply with Obama Administration mandates, the U.S. Department of Labor proposed a new rule late last year that would tighten workplace regulations on American youth 16 and under. 

The new rule brought a torrent of more than 10,000 comments. Those in America’s heartland expressed their concerns about everything from the breaking of intergenerational bonds to an increase in food costs for consumers.

Many farmers and ranchers are worried about how the proposed rule specifies where their children can be employed. Under the current yet to adopted measure, any child under 16 can work at any job on any farm owned by their parents. But the same child is prohibited from performing certain jobs on farms or ranches owned by grandparents, aunts or uncles. Even though special permission can be granted by parents for those as young as 12, there are still chores the Secretary of Labor has determined are too dangerous for them to perform.

Increasing concern over how the rule would be implemented across rural America spurred members of Congress to invite Deputy Administrator Nancy Leppink from the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division to Capitol Hill for an explanation.

Nancy Leppink, U.S. Department of Labor: “Children are significantly more likely to be seriously injured or killed while performing agricultural work than children working in all other industries combined. This regulation is only targeting the very youngest and the most hazardous jobs. So consequently, our authority and responsibility is to look at these regulations in the act.”

 Despite agreeing to reconsider the rule and consult with USDA even before she began her testimony, Leppink endured nearly an hour of questioning from Congressmen with upset constituents.

Rep. Denny Rehburg, R-Montana: “I’ve come to a conclusion, it’s a different in philosophy between urban and rural and this is one of those situations where the Department of Labor is overstepping its boundaries and its knowledge base. It seems like you are sitting around watching reruns of Blazing Saddles and that’s how you interpret what goes on in the West. It’s not like that any more. Mr. Chairman, I can assure you I will have a rider on the bill that will keep you from implementing this rule.”

 Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa: “When I look at prohibits herding animals in a confinement, that means a 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and even a 15 year old waiting for their 16th birthday can’t help sort out pigs.”

 Nancy Leppink, U.S. Department of Labor: “This is part of the rule making process to weigh in on comments like this. Maybe we got it wrong. And there are many examples of rules being changed as a result of this process. We are taking the comments seriously and they will be reflected in the final rule.”

 Leppink’s testimony was followed by comments from several members of the agricultural community who believe the proposed rule needs a closer look.

Chris Chinn, Clarence, Missouri and representing the American Farm Bureau Federation: “Both of our children work on our family farm on a daily basis just like Kevin and I did when we were growing up. It’s a way of life in rural America, but it’s more than that. It’s a way for us to instill important values in our children, teaching them the right work ethic. To learn what it is to earn your keep. To recognize that when you put your mind to do something, you can accomplish a lot. That effort and reward are related. And above all – to be careful when the job you are doing entails risks.”

 Chinn spoke about the concern many farm families have over how certain parts of the currently proposed rule will be enforced. 

Chris Chinn, Clarence, Missouri and representing the American Farm Bureau Federation: “The Department wants to say that no youth under the age of 16 can work with any equipment that is operated by any power source other than human hand or foot power. That would eliminate a lot of equipment including flashlights and garden hoses.”

 The decision to reconsider the measure’s language was applauded by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and various farm state Senators including Iowa’s Charles Grassley, a republican.

 The move to reopen the statute by the Department of Labor also received support from farm groups including the National Farmers Union, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the American Farm Bureau.

Tags: children Congress farm safety Labor Department USDA