Digging Deeper


Farm country cheers scrapping of child labor plan

Eight months ago, when the U.S. Department of Labor announced it was updating child labor standards affecting kids who work on farms, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis touted them as protecting “the most vulnerable workers in America.”

The verbiage wasn’t so dramatic late last Thursday, when the Labor Department sent out a terse release after business hours that said, in just five paragraphs, that the Obama administration was dropping those plans. The release even promised that the issue was dead for “the duration of the Obama administration.”

“The decision to withdraw this rule – including provisions to define the ‘parental exemption’ – was made in response to thousands of comments expressing concerns about the effect of the proposed rules on small family-owned farms,” the release said.  

Farm groups cheered, knowing that the 18,000 comments they filed – along with the loud outcry from some 98 farm country congressional representatives – had won the day.

But labor and safety activists sneered, chalking up the back-up to election year politics and the Obama folks’ fear of losing those farm state votes.  

“There was tremendous heat, and I don’t think it helped that it was an election year,” Reid Maki, coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition, told the Washington Post. “A lot of conservatives made a lot of political hay out of this issue.”

The political hay, no pun intended, was spun by GOP presidential contenders who were using it on the campaign trail, farm state congressmen who launched a website and verbal lobs at the idea, and even Sarah Palin, who stepped into the fray with a Facebook page.

The proposed changes, the first suggested in 40 years, attracted heat as soon as they were announced. To say that kids under the age of 16 shouldn’t drive a tractor, handle pesticides or brand cattle was simply heresy in farm country.

But the ideas also went against the grain of farm kid culture, one in which children and parents are proud of a hard work ethic that instilled in them a sense of responsibility that lasts a lifetime. Most of the people who responded to my most recent query on the issue said the government should scrap the plan.

Natasha Karsk, an urban farmer in Kansas City Mo., said the plans were not fair to the agriculture industry and even the livelihood of young adults who help their parents sustain the family farm.

I grew up in Nebraska and detassled corn in the summers, starting at age 14.  It instills in young adults a work ethic that is at the root of Midwest values.  This would be a horrible blow on small family farms and the generational family farm.

And it didn’t just resonate in those still on the farm. Many kids who grew up in rural areas and later moved to the cities remembered working on a farm – with fond and not-so-fond memories. From Don Haring of Overland Park, Kansas:

Except for a newspaper route, my first income-producing jobs were as a "hand" on farms. This started at age 14 and continued until age 20. These jobs trained me in work ethic, safety and responsibility. I would not deny anyone the ability to earn even "walking around" money in this way. … Jobs included: hay hand both in the field and in the barn; grain elevator jobs; field plowing; truck and tractor driving. Worst job ever . . . vaccinating turkeys!

One of the major sticking points in the proposed changes was the idea that kids couldn’t work on their own parents’ farms. In fact, the regulations had a parental exemption, and even though the Labor Department later liberalized that interpretation, opponents were still angry that kids would be outlawed from working on a neighbor’s or extended family member’s operations.

But the safety activists had a point, too.  Children who work in agriculture have little protection under the Fair Labor Standards Act, unlike minors in other industries.  And, according to USDA statistics, an average of 104 children die each year as a result of a farm-related injury and more than 22,000 kids are injured.  

What now? Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack told the Des Moines Register that he is already working with ag advocacy groups like American Farm Bureau, who opposed the rules, on a plan to promote farm safety.

“Rather than regulate we’re going to focus on educate,” Vilsack said. “We’re anxious to get this started.”