Department of Labor withdraws proposed regulations for young hired farm workers

The decision to withdraw the 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 U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced on April 26, 2012 that it was withdrawing proposed revisions to regulations that govern youth (aged 14 and 15) who are employed in agriculture. The DOL’s press release indicates that the withdrawal is in response to an outpouring of public concern that the changes would have harmed family farms and damaged the rural way of life. 

Most public criticisms were aimed at proposed changes that would have reduced the number of youth eligible for the “parental exemption” provided under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  Under the act, a youth who is in an employment relationship with the farm owner/operator and who is directly supervised by a parent or a “person standing in place of a parent” is not subject to the law or to federal health and safety regulations governing child labor in agricultural occupations.

The proposed revisions would have defined the term “person standing in place of the parent” as that person directly responsible for a youth’s “rearing, safety, health and well-being,” and specifically excluded a “corporation” or a farm operator who is not the parent. In a background section to the proposed revisions, rationale for this clarification is given as follows:

“These [parental] exemptions were granted in recognition of, and continue to rely upon, the concept that a parent's natural concern for his or her child's well-being will serve to protect the child. Congress, as evidenced by discussion on the floor of the House of Representatives (see Congressional Record, 75th Congress, page 1693, December 16, 1937) intended that the parental exemptions be applied quite narrowly, limiting their application to parents and those standing in place of a parent.”

Farmers and ranchers responded that this clarification would have resulted in fewer opportunities for their teens to work on a relative’s farm, even if the farm was co-owned by the youth’s parent and the relative was directly supervising the youth. Farmers said that the revisions failed to recognize the reality of family farms, which often are jointly owned by adult family members and are filed as limited liability corporations (LLC). 

Other proposed revisions would have prohibited young hired farm workers, aged 14 to 15, from operating or tending any power-driven equipment. Currently, young hired farm workers who are 14 and 15 may operate tractors and other farm equipment after completing a safety course offered by 4-H, or if they are enrolled in student-learner programs or vocational agricultural training programs. The proposed rules would have eliminated the exemption provided to graduates of a 4-H safety program and would have required them to complete a semester of vocational agriculture instruction (offered through public or private schools) that included instruction on specific machinery.

In its press release, the U.S. Department of Labor stated that they intended to work with their rural partners, including 4-H, “to develop an educational program to reduce accidents to young workers and promote safer agricultural working practices." According to a 2000 Bureau of Labor Statistics Report, agriculture is one of the most dangerous occupations, and fatalities among young people working in agriculture are most likely to occur among the very youngest workers.

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