On Thursday, farmers and farm leaders in New York State lashed out at the U.S. Department of Labor. The message was: Leave farm kids alone!
After last year's volatile hearings across the country and approximately 9,000 negative comments, USDOL pledged to re-propose its parental exemption language regarding youth employment guidelines for 14 and 15 year olds. It did not, however, guarantee that changes would be made that allow children to work on their grandparents or aunt and uncle's farm, or that a farm organized as a limited liability corporation – common on today's family farms – will be treated the same as a sole proprietorship.
According to New York Farm Bureau leaders, the "Hazardous Occupations Orders" are moving forward full steam. Under it, simple tasks like using a hand-held flashlight or unloading a truck were deemed as too dangerous for a teenager.
USDOL has given no indication that it'll address the negative impact on farmers, farm youth and rural communities. The regulatory process on the parental exemption language is due to restart in June. USDOL could finalize the other youth employment rules as early as this summer.
"We're now moving beyond annoying red tape to where it appears that the government wants to stretch its long arm onto our family farms and tell us how to raise our kids," says Dean Norton, NYFB president. "I'm a farmer, and when it comes to my kids' safety, no one cares more than I do. It's time for USDOL to scrap these regulations and let farm families get back to what they do best – farming."
"The effects of these proposed regulations are so negative and far reaching, that we need to stop this in its tracks now, before future generations of farmers are imperiled," he emphasizes.
Paige Levandowski, vice president of Albion (N.Y.) High School's Future Farmers of America chapter, sees the USDOL proposals as a threat to FFA's core mission. "FFA is dedicated to promoting agricultural education, and if the role of young people in agriculture is challenged, then so is our mission. Lots of kids work on their family farm or at a neighbor's farm, and none of them feel unsafe."
Greater farm labor repercussions
Another potential consequence of the full implementation of the proposed USDOL regulations could be even less jobs available for young people in rural areas. According to statistics from New York State Department of Labor, youth employment generally has been in decline since 2009.
Orchard Dale Fruit Farms has been a family-owned farm since 1804. It employs young people both on the farm and at its retail market, Brown's Berry Patch. "Some of the restrictions in the proposed USDOL regulations are very troubling to me," says Owner Eric Brown. "We hire local teenagers throughout the year. They're vital to operating our business. And I know that working here is helpful to kids and their families.
Brown's Berry Patch employs two full-time workers, who started working for the business part-time as teenagers. "By trying to prevent kids from working here," notes Brown, "USDOL is hitting us with a double whammy."
Beth Chittenden of Dutch Hollow Farm of Rensselaer County, N.Y., clearly sees the DOL proposals as overreach. "My husband and I have taught our kids how to do every farm chore and we've always emphasized safety. Some jobs that these regulations would ban are things that every parent asks their kids to do, whether they are farmers or not. Using a leaf blower or mowing the lawn should be allowed on a family farm, just as it is in a suburban subdivision."
Linda Fix, of Fix Brothers Fruit Farm agrees, "When you read these regulations, you really have to shake your head and ask: Who thought this was reasonable? We lost 300 farms in New York State last year. If a regulation like this is finalized, we'll lose more. This is about protecting the next generation of farms."
"We must be sure the federal government does not overreach in its rulemaking and prevent the participation of young people in agriculture," responds New York Congressman Bill Owens. "Addressing this issue is critical to ensuring young people can carry on the tradition of family farming, keeping local businesses alive."
To view a video about the "dangerous jobs" prohibited by the new USDOL regulation, click on: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8Wrp6BcIEE&list=UUqdVwM_hmLvWs1uERhpw9sA&index=1&feature=plcp