Proposed new rules from the federal Department of Labor would further restrict the kind of work young people may do on farms—and might even restrict farmers’ rights to allow their own children to work.

The new labor rules were proposed in September. During a three-month comment period, some 6,000 comments were filed.

Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, filed 13 pages of comments. State Farm Bureaus were among the leaders publicizing the content of the new rules and ­urging ­farmers to submit comments and submitted ­comments themselves.

Now, it’s time to wait and see. Gasperini expects that growers will know the outcome by spring. The Department of Labor can proceed to make the proposed rule final, it can rewrite the proposed rules, or it could back away from this hot potato and do nothing at all.

“They must by law read and consider all the comments,” Gasperini said. Some 70 members of Congress representing farm-states have been agitated in this process and could choose to hold hearings on the matter, making the Department of Labor defend its decision.

Is farming different?

For many years, child labor laws have prevented ­agricultural employers from hiring children under the age of 12 and restricted the hours and kind of work those under 18 can do. But, Gasperini said, since the first laws were enacted in 1937, Congress realized that agriculture was different, so the rules for young people working on farms were not as restrictive as those governing other industries.

Now, with an urban president from Chicago and a secretary of labor from Los Angeles, this agricultural exemption is being questioned. Why should the rules governing farmers and ranchers be different? The Department of Labor ­specifically stated it intends to move toward parity on rules governing child labor.

The proposed new rules not only further restrict the kind of work youths under age 16 may do, they tighten some of the definitions of family members who are exempt from those restrictions.

A literal reading of the new rules, according to the Farm Bureaus, means that youths could not ride on hay wagons to stack bales, stand on a ladder more than six feet tall, care for animals, milk cows, scrape manure, or feed cattle, weld or use power tools, mow a lawn with a lawn tractor, move irrigation equipment, or care for their 4-H animals on a farm unless their parents owned it. As worded, children wouldn’t be able to work in an office on a second floor since it is higher than six feet above the ground.

Moreover, only children of parents who are sole proprietors or sole operators of farms would be exempt. Thus, if the farm is technically owned by grandparents and operated by their children, the grandchildren who live on the farm couldn’t do work there except as permitted by other provisions of the law. If the farm is a partnership or is held as a corporation or an LLC, even if it is a family operation, ­children in the family may be restricted in the work they can do.

“When the family farm exemptions to youth labor regulations were written into law in 1937, Congress clearly intended that farm families should make their own decisions relative to age appropriateness of work activities for their own children,” Gasperini wrote in his comments to the Department of Labor. “At that time, Congress could not have imagined that in the twenty-first century, even smaller family farms would have moved in such large numbers to legal incorporation in order to secure some protection from the nation’s ever more complex tax codes, from litigation in an increasingly litigious society, for succession planning, to improve ability to leverage assets, and many more ­reasons….

“We do not believe Congress ever envisioned or intended that a brother and sister, jointly managing their parents’ 200-acre farm, would find it illegal to employ their own children because the land was held as a Limited Liability ­Corporation.”

While officials at the Department of Labor have denied the intent to interpret the law so literally, Gasperini and others fear “enforcement creep” if the rules are passed as they are worded.

Farm-learned lessons

Gasperini cites himself as an example of how people come to know the farm way of life, including a work ethic. As a rural nonfarm kid, he said, he was able to “pitch in and help” on farms where his farm friends lived. Without that experience, he said, he never would have taken a college degree in agronomy and made a career in agriculture. In recent years, enforcers prosecuted farms where children of employees—especially migrant worker employees—have “pitched in” to help their parents.

“Youth represent the future of agriculture and of America,” Gasperini wrote. “Youth must be protected, educated, trained, mentored, and offered meaningful early work experience opportunities, both in order to allow informed career planning and to provide income opportunities. In rural areas, agriculture may provide the only youth work/income opportunities available. Not every young person in America has the luxury of unlimited family income to allow them to pursue educational and career opportunities without income-generating work opportunities.

“With fewer and fewer people directly engaged in agriculture, an early employment experience is increasingly the ­motivation for young people entering­ college programs in farming, food processing and marketing, landscaping, horticulture, and other agricultural disciplines so important to the future, and the well-being of the American people.”