Agricultural child labor restrictions to limit opportunities of hired help

Click here to listen to an interview with Kerri Ebert, extension assistant at K-State Research and Extension.

By Nikki Wentling

Berryton, Kan. — Every day after school, Lane Deghand drives the 20 miles to Rocking H Ranch farm, where he works as a hired hand for the Wulfkuhle’s livestock operation. He operates machinery, drives motor vehicles and helps in the silos and with livestock exchanges – all of which would be prohibited under the new restrictions proposed by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The DOL introduced additions to the Agricultural Child Labor Hazardous Occupations Orders (H.O.s) in Sept. 2011. The H.O.s, which were established in 1970, now place additional limitations on the activities of non-relative hired help under the age of 16. The additional restrictions and penalties for violations could cause youth like Deghand to lose their jobs, something Brenna Wulfkuhle, who runs the farm with her husband Mike,  said is a detriment to the future of farming.

“I don’t know where our future is going to be,” she said. “If you want to go into farming, you have to have a background in farming.”

Ten years ago, Bryan Fishburn started working for the Wulfkuhles through a Future Farmers of America program as a sophomore in high school. Today, he is still an employee of Rocking H Ranch and owns 150 acres of his own property. If the new restrictions are applied, Deghand may not be allowed a similar experience.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for this kid,” Wulfkuhle said. “He pulled his grades up in order to stay working. He wouldn’t have that opportunity otherwise because he’s not from a family farm.”

Department of Labor reevaluates parental exemption

The DOL has received more than 18,000 letters of complaint since the new rules were proposed five months ago. Kansas Senators Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts signed a letter to Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, which called for the dismissal of all changes to the H.O.s.

“It received a tremendous amount of pressure from congressional delegations especially in farm belt states,” said Kerri Ebert, extension assistant with K-State Research and Extension.

Kansas’s government entities are also against the restrictions. Gov. Sam Brownback, along with Attorney General Derek Schmidt and the secretaries of agriculture, labor and commerce sent a letter that said the restrictions would have a “negative effect on youth seeking to work in Kansas agriculture – the state’s largest industry.”

“Sec. Rodman has major concerns about the child labor rules. If implemented, the rules would impose overly burdensome restrictions on many common farm activities,” said Chelsea Good, communications director for the Kansas Department of Agriculture.

The DOL issued a statement that said it would take time reviewing comments and repurposing sections of the restrictions that are under scrutiny. It is currently reevaluating the parental exemption portion of the restrictions, which has been the main source of complaints. Ebert said the process of reevaluation would continue into the next calendar year.

“We need to find a balance of how we can keep children safe without burdensome regulations from our government,” she said. “We need to find some way to make everybody happy. Make the regulators happy that they’ve done what they need to do to protect children and make the agricultural community happy that they’re not being overburdened.”

Data supports each side

Ebert also said there is a need for some of these new restrictions. According to National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety 2011 Fact Sheet, agriculture has the second highest fatality rate among youth workers.

“I don’t think anyone would dismiss that farming is dangerous. It’s highly industrialized, highly mechanized and someone needs to be watching out for safety,” she said.

However, the fact sheet also shows that childhood agricultural injuries have declined by 59 percent in the past 11 years, and that 75 percent of injured children were not actively working when the injury occurred.

“There are some things in agriculture that are dangerous, but in everything you do in life there is a risk,” Wulfkuhle said. “We don’t put anybody out there thinking that something’s going to happen, it’s just that sometimes accidents happen.”

Learning experiences continue

For now, Deghand will continue on as an employee for Rocking H Ranch. He will learn how to work a livestock operation and develop the traits Wulfkuhle said are necessary to succeed on a farm and in life.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Wulfkuhle said. “Some of these kids that work for us, they can’t find a job anywhere else. Here, they get practical knowledge, practical skills. There’s so much work ethic that’s learned from farming. I think a lot of those basic traits that we need to be successful are going to be gone.”


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