By Patrick Howard
Capital News Service
LANSING — Faced with considerable opposition from state farmers, the U.S. Department of Labor is reconsidering regulations that would exclude children 16 and younger from most farm work.
The regulations would prohibit young people from milking cows, feeding cattle, stacking hay bales higher than 6 feet, picking fruit from ladders more than 6 feet tall and operating basic farm equipment — except on farms wholly owned by their parents.
Rep. Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, said the proposed rule is a case of the federal government overstepping its boundaries and playing the role of “expert” in an area it knows nothing about.
Cotter said many farmers have contacted him in opposition to the regulations, indicating the measure’s unpopularity.
“Agriculture is the second-largest industry in the state,” Cotter said. “While we understand safety concerns associated with farming, these rules go way too far.”
Cotter, who sponsored a resolution last year urging Congress and the Department of Labor to reconsider the proposed changes to child labor laws, said he is glad to see the federal government revisiting the issue.
“Considering the opposition it’s received thus far, I think it will have to listen,” Cotter said.
In a statement, Michigan House Republicans said the proposed regulations would prevent children from performing routine tasks such as operating a lawn mower or using a power drill and storing, marketing or transporting raw materials.
Ryan Findlay, national legislative counsel for the Michigan Farm Bureau, said Michigan farmers don’t see the need for the regulations.
“We have a strong work tradition — a strong work ethic. Farm work is a rite of passage for rural youth, and not just those whose parents own farms, but their neighbors across the countryside and in town as well,” Findlay said.
According to the Farm Bureau, the restrictions hurt farm businesses that rely on involving multiple family members and generations in their everyday duties.
The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division said it will reconsider the “parental exemption,” which the Farm Bureau said prohibits grandchildren from working on their grandparents’ farm and children from working on a farm co-owned by their father and uncle.
According to the Department of Labor, the issue was initially brought to the forefront because of “studies showing that children are significantly more likely to be killed while performing agricultural work than while working in all other industries combined.”
U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, said it’s good to see the department re-proposing the parental exemption. However, “there still remains problematic provisions that restrict the ability of youth to work in agriculture.”
In addition to the parental exemption, she said the proposed regulations also ban young workers from caring for their animals or harvesting fruits and vegetables.
“It is clear the Department of Labor has not listened to the voices of American family farmers and does not understand the culture of many of our farms,” Miller said. “It is time for them to stop trying to change the culture and practices that have made our agriculture sector the most efficient and productive in the world.”
U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, noted that agriculture contributes more than $71 billion to Michigan’s economy annually and supports one out of every four jobs across the state.
“I am glad the Department of Labor heard my concerns and the concerns of so many families in Michigan and decided to re-evaluate this rule,” said Stabenow, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee.
“Of course there should be safeguards to protect children from dangerous situations, but there needs to be an understanding that many children in rural communities learn about safety by helping their family on the farm,” she said.
Findlay said, “Safety is a priority on every farm. Every farmer, in Michigan and across the nation, wants to see his or her son or daughter and their friends home safe at the end of the day.”
revisit proposed limits on young farm workers
By Patrick Howard