By Michael V. Hannigan
The News Staff
It is livestock show time in Henderson County, when area residents celebrate the passing of a farming tradition on to youth.
But this year’s show comes in the shadow of worry over federal bureaucracy and possible changes to a way of life.
In September 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) proposed changes to child labor regulations for kids under 16.
“Children employed in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable workers in America,” said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis when the proposal was announced. “Ensuring their welfare is a priority of the department, and this proposal is another element of our comprehensive approach.”
According to the DOL, some of the major changes would include:
– All tractors operated by 14- and 15-year-old student learners be equipped with rollover protection and seat belts.
– Remove certification programs for 14- and 15-year-olds to operate most tractors and farm implements without supervision.
– Prohibit engaging or assisting in animal husbandry practices such as, but not limited to, branding, breeding, dehorning, vaccinating, castrating, and treating sick or injured animals.
– Limiting farm work involving construction, communications, roofing, at elevations greater than 6 feet, wrecking, demolition, and the operation of most power-driven equipment and manually operated hoists.
– Prohibit the use of most electronic devices, including communication devices, while operating power-driven machinery, including automobiles, tractors, farm implements and woodworking machines.
The rule would also prevent children under 18 from working in grain elevators, grain bins, silos, feed lots, stockyards, livestock exchanges and livestock auctions.
Not everyone agrees. In fact, the DOL has received more than 10,000 comments on the proposed rules change and is expected to resubmit the portion concerning the so-called “parental exemption” in early summer.
Henderson County Pct. 2 Commissioner Wade McKinney, who said he learned how to drive a tractor at age 7, is one of those against the measure.
He said working on the farm gave him “an awareness of circumstances around me. It taught me to think, and it has for everyone that has grown up in an agricultural background.”
“It gives you an awareness of the world that, in my opinion, that is lacking as we get farther away from an agrarian society,” he said.
The DOL has tried to calm fears, pointing out that the rules are only for children who are employees, and “a child of any age may perform any job, even hazardous work, at any age at any time on a farm owned by his or her parent.”
When told that, McKinney laughed and said, “Oh, employment. You know how many people I worked for doing these very same things before I was 18.”
The agency also says the rules changes will not hurt student ag programs.
“The Department of Labor fully supports the important contributions both 4-H and the FFA make toward developing our children. The proposed rule would in no way prohibit a child from raising or caring for an animal in a non-employment situation — even if the animal were housed on a working farm — as long as he or she is not hired or ‘employed’ to work with the animal,” according to a DOL website.
Still, the DOL believes the changes are needed, pointing to the fact that agriculture labor laws haven’t been updated in 40 years.
“Children serving as employees in the agriculture business are among the most vulnerable of our nation’s workers,” Nancy Leppink, a DOL deputy administrator, told a Congressional subcommittee in February. “The fatality rate for young agricultural workers is four times greater than that of their peers employed in nonagricultural work places.”
In March, members of both the House and Senate introduced bills to end the DOL’s attempts to change the agriculture child labor rules.
McKinney has a simpler solution.
“The government needs to stay out of anything dealing with the family and not impede someone’s ability to get a job,” he said.
“Do I believe in child labor being exploited, of course not,” he added. “But, in my experiences in the agricultural sector that’s not an issue.”
The procedure for changing the child agricultural labor rules is expected to take several months – if Congress doesn’t block the process.