Rulemaking on the revisions to child labor regulations in agricultural settings has been extended until Dec. 1,  and the issue is sparking a lot of comments and interest.

In fact, on the federal rulemaking web site, the Child Labor Regulations, Orders and Statements of Interpretation: Violations-Civil Money Penalties is the second most visited federal docket this week, right after Smoking of Electronic Cigarettes on Aircraft.

As of Nov. 9, there were over 1,365 comments on the proposed regulation. Many were from farmers and their associations.

Here is a comment from Jani Humphrey on the topic:

Not allowing children under the age of 18 to work on a farm? Really? That is unbelievable! I grew up on a farm. I was an FFA member all four years of high school. This is where I learned how to work. How to get a job done no matter what time of day it was. This is where I learned to care for sick and injured animals. This is where I learned not just to grow a garden, but to grow a crop. My children are now 4-H members. I hope they will have a chance to learn what I have and appreciate hard work, caring for humans, animals and crops alike. It is absolutely unreasonable to say that "children" shouldn't be allowed to work on a farm. Families working together towards a common goal should be exemplified! Our government should be ashamed! Do they know where their groceries come from?

While Jani's comments appear to settle the issue for the common-sense minded and the regulation-weary,  one can at least see the other side of the argument after reading the comments of Julia Perez.

From her comments:

My Background:
    My perspective is twofold, that of a former child laborer and as Associate Director, filming The Harvest documentary in 2009-2010. In the 70’s and 80’s I worked in ten states, primarily the Rocky Mountain States such as Oregon, Idaho, Washington, Montana, Colorado, and Wyoming.  I worked from age five to seventeen harvesting strawberries, topping onions with a knife, and hoeing weeds. I also lived on many farms.  As Associate Director of the Harvest I traveled with Director U. Roberto Romano to Michigan, Texas, North Carolina and Florida filming the current reality of agriculture.  In short, I find the state of agriculture worse.   I applaud the efforts to bring desperately needed protections to the children of agriculture.

Support for Proposed Changes:
While I agree with all the proposed changes, I’d like to highlight the ones I find most pertinent.
•    Support for the protection offered by H.O.10 related to pesticide exposure. This is well documented and researched and there is no logical reason not to protect young workers from unnecessary health risks. This support extends to H.O.11, H.O.12 and H.O.13. The tobacco industry business model can survive without risking our young workers.

•    Support for H.O.8 to protect young workers against the dangerous, often fatal risks associated with work inside fruit, forage, and grain storage silos and bins. This support naturally extends to H.O.9 for manure pits.

•    Support for H.O. 1 but against the Learner Exemption (H.O.2). Farm equipment and machinery has become increasingly complex. In my opinion, operating farm equipment is more difficult than driving a car on the road. A well trained adult is best suited for this work and the inherent risks. I further support the protections with electronic devices while operating tractors for anyone operating the equipment. The support also encompasses H.O.3. for non powered equipment which pose unnecessary risk.
•    Support for H.O.7 which protects young workers from the dangers of working at elevations greater than six feet.  The obvious reasons are well documented and researched by the WHD/DOL.

Requested Comments:
I think it imperative the WHD/DOL adopt Heat Stress H.O. as soon as possible. The hazards due to weather exposure are a challenge to regulate. While some collapse in the fields, others still manage to continue working.  In interviewing kids in Watsonville, California in 2009 they shared stories of watching co-workers faint, or simply get sick.  California implemented heat regulations in 2006 but some still continue to become ill or worse. Why isn’t it working? What can WHD/DOL do better for the protection of young/all workers?

For adults, I would recommend the following:

•    Limit the working day to four hours when the temperatures reach 100 degrees.

•    Individual water cups/containers should be available for sanitary purposes if the workers do not bring their own containers. For temperatures above 80 degrees, offer clean water breaks every hour.

think no child under 16 years should be working [other than for their parents]. I realize this is the current situation. As such, we can only improve protections. For children under the age of 16, I would recommend the following:

•    No child under 16 years allowed to work when temperatures reach 90 degrees.
•    For temperatures between 75-90 degrees, children should receive a water/bathroom break every hour.
•    No children under the age of 16 allowed to work after 7pm any day of the year ie no night shifts.
•    Children under 16 must not work more than 8 hours a day under any circumstances.

Comments regarding Piece Rate:
•    The issue with eliminating piece rate is the alternative of minimum wage. During interviews for The Harvest documentary, I was told that when some farms paid minimum wage, the foremen had a quota of produce expected for the day. The workers had to meet that quota even if it meant working longer hours.  Another issue observed with minimum wage is that there is more regulation over the workers which leads may mean pressure for less breaks, and pressure to continue an increased working pace. If a parent does take a child to work under conditions of minimum wage, they don’t feel they are empowered to protect their children. They risk their livelihood if they complain or ask for perceived special treatment. They transfer the fear to the children who push themselves to continue working rather than have the whole family fired.  I personally, don’t think minimum wage will protect children from the perils of work too strenuous for most adults. However, it might keep some farmers from hiring the very young children. So while I don’t believe eliminating piece rate work for children is a perfect solution it may currently be the only solution.

•    Record keeping is more of a challenge with piece rate but imperative. For example, in Michigan I witnessed boxes of apples filled by parents and children. Only the parents were paid. I personally experienced and recently witnessed the denial of social security to children and adults. As long as children are legally harvesting, record keeping is a challenge. I suggest strong enforcement of the existing record keeping provisions for accountability.
•    Support for only hiring young workers after June 1. I experienced and witnessed many parents disrupting their children’s education because of the pressure of a harvest season.

Further Suggestions for WHD/DOL:
On the WHD/DOL website it is specifically stated work should not jeopardize a young person’s health or educational opportunities.

“The federal child labor provisions, authorized by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938, also known as the child labor laws, were enacted to ensure that when young people work, the work is safe and does not jeopardize their health, well-being or educational opportunities. These provisions also provide limited exemptions.”

While I think it’s clear children under 16 are sacrificing their health, I understand it’s more difficult to substantiate. However, there is clear evidence that children under 16 harvesting crops are jeopardizing their educational futures. The high school dropout rate for this population is significantly higher than the national average. Further, I think the non-agriculture protections for children indicate a clear double standard and disparity. The WHD/DOL website offers the following advice for non-agriculture children:

“Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 14 is the minimum age for working, except for working in agriculture. Because you are 13, or younger, you may not work in non-agricultural employment unless one of the exemptions in the FLSA applies. Please remember, you already have a full-time job--working hard in school so you can get a good education. This is the most important job you will ever have. What you learn now will help you get a better job when you are older.”

Why do children in agriculture not deserve a “better job” when they are older? Why are they denied a good education, their education less important?

Julia Perez, MSEE
Associate Director, The Harvest

TK: From my "40,000 foot" (overused I know) vantage point, I can't necessarily put a "fine point" on my convictions about pending child labor regulations. I probably lean more toward Julia than Jani. What I do know is that the comments Jani and Julia represent what is great about America. We all get the chance to "say it like it is," even if our versions of reality differ. The government ultimately decides and then we can resume griping about it.