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26 April 2012

My thoughts on the DOL Child Labor Proposal

My wife told me about various posts on Facebook circulating about potential regulations concerning children working on farms that had everyone outraged. I tried to inquire about details, but she didn't have many. That's not her fault, as after logging into Facebook myself and looking at two of the articles, there wasn't much info there.

After digging around, as is my style, my conclusion is the whole thing is pretty empty. From a practical standpoint, the proposed changes appear to have been withdrawn, though this happened after all the hoopla, so no issue from me on that point.

What I do have issue with is the twisting of words and stretching if implications. Let's look some of the article from Catholic Vote.
My kids’ friends that I like the most are farm kids. It’s simple. Working on a farm makes kids hard-working and responsible...

Well now the federal government is stepping in to regulate the kind of work kids can do on a farm – no helping out in the silo, grain bins or elevators and no working at the livestock exchange or auction. While the regulations technically exclude kids working on their parent’s farm, but what if Jimmy works on grandma’s farm or Uncle Joe is paying his niece to help him out with the livestock? And where does it end? It’s a slippery slope. Like an octopus, government’s tendency is to reach further and further into our lives...

As a parent, I can’t think of a more cautionary example of the perils of big government. The sense of purpose gained from contributing to a family or neighbor’s enterprise harkens us back to a traditional American model of self-reliance, precisely at a time when nearly half of US kids and 90% of African-American kids are being raised on government food stamps.

Bold words! Rachel, the author, is correct when she admits that the regulations have nothing to do with children working on their own family farms. By "children," I believe we're talking younger than 16. Just to make sure we're clear, this is from page one of the actual Aug 2011 DOL proposal itself (does anyone writing on sites like this ever think to link to the actual texts they're criticizing instead of forcing me to use google-fu?):
The proposed agricultural revisions would impact only hired farm workers and in no way compromise the statutory child labor parental exemption involving children working on farms owned or operated by their parents.

Next, the regulations, as far as I can tell, only apply to moderate to high risk activities anyway. Nothing's stopping you from teaching your kid good work ethic around the farm. They simply don't want younger-ish folks working on things that might harm them. I don't quite understand the livestock auction clause, but there's apparently a lot of dangerous stuff in agriculture. Enough that that Bureau of Labor Statistics has it rated pretty darned high in terms of annual fatalities, and especially the fatality rate (deaths per 100,000 full time workers), in its most recent report (main report page and charts; see charts 16, 18, and 19 for occupation breakdowns).

Also, there's already regulations about operating this type of equipment. Like, right now. Like, with the same force as minimum wage regulations, as in everyone is supposed to be following them. Go read the current Child Labor Standards Act and you'll see that the proposals above, from what I can tell, only bump up the age from 16 to 18 for the same exact tasks already regulated (to be fair, I don't see mention of helping with livestock transport/auctions in the current FLSA). To pull the actual text:
The Secretary of Labor has found and declared that the following occupations are hazardous for minors under 16 years of age.
1. Operating a tractor of over 20 powertake-off (PTO) horsepower, or connecting or disconnecting an implement or any of its parts to or from such a tractor.

2. Operating or assisting to operate (including starting, stopping, adjusting, feeding or any other activity involving physical contact associated with the operation) any of the following machines: [a bunch]

3. Operating or assisting to operate (including starting, stopping, adjusting, feeding, or any other activity involving physical contact associated with the operation) any of the following machines: [a bunch]

4. Working on a farm in a yard, pen, or stall occupied by a:
a. bull, boar, or stud horse maintained for breeding purposes;
b. a sow with suckling pigs, or a cow with a newborn calf (with umbilical cord present).

5. Felling, bucking, skidding, loading, or unloading timber with butt diameter of more than 6 inches.

6. Working from a ladder or scaffold (painting, repairing, or building structures, pruning trees, picking fruit,
etc.) at a height of over 20 feet...

It goes on until #11, but you get the point. The comments I've seen about all of this make it sound like the government is just now preventing 10 year olds from pitching in by driving the tractor at harvest time. And if the backlash is because family farms already break those regulations... then who cares about a change to something that isn't followed and isn't enforced? Regarding the comment about little Jimmy working for his aunt or uncle... he already couldn't do that unless he was 16. At most, his aunt and uncle lose some portion of two years of part time work. The stuff above already doesn't apply to family farms... and, again, wouldn't have under the new proposals either.

The bottom line is that there's nothing preventing anyone from helping out around the farm; there's simply a proposal to prevent doing certain things. This isn't about "big government;" they're just regulating a potentially dangerous set of tasks. One quote from the initial Department of Labor announcement concerning machinery regulations I found interesting was as follows:
Additionally, the proposal would prohibit farmworkers under 16 from operating almost all power-driven equipment. A similar prohibition has existed as part of the nonagricultural child labor provisions for more than 50 years.

In other words, we figured out 50 years ago that children probably shouldn't be working on certain types of equipment. This proposal seems to have just been extending it to farming as well.

I truly don't want to use scare tactics, but I was curious as to how hard it would be to find instances of children dying while conducting farming work. Turns out, it's really not hard at all. Not even close.

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