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Proposed Child Labor Rules Could Alter Farm Life


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Des Moines. The Department of Labor describes proposed regulations on kids and agriculture in terms of safety. A lot of farmers describe them as an attack on the rural way of life. The restrictions would prevent children 16 and under from the riskiest work, like driving tractors or working atop tall ladders, unless they're working for their parents on a family farm.

Opponents argue that exception doesn't go far enough, that regulations could discourage youngsters and increase reliance on migrant labor. The period for public comment on these regulations expired at the beginning of this month, but farmers, here's another chance to weigh in. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, more on an Iowa law some say criminalizes HIV, but first child labor on family farms. We begin with Pat Blank, a senior producer for Iowa Public Radio. She joins us today from the studios at Iowa Public Radio in Cedar Falls. Pat, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

PAT BLANK, BYLINE: Nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And I understand you grew up on a farm, not all that uncommon in this state. How would these new regulations require change? Would it be serious change?

BLANK: I think in some cases perhaps it would be more because it is called a family farm for a reason, and not everybody lives on a particular farm. There are also siblings, cousins, grandpa, grandma, and some of these rules and regulations would prohibit the cousins from coming to the farm maybe on the weekend or during the week and helping with some of the chores if they were under a certain age.

CONAN: If they're under a certain age and depending on the task that they're assigned to do. Also as I understand it, a lot of family farmers rent land that's adjacent or nearby, and again it's unclear whether these regulations would apply to children working on that land.

BLANK: Exactly, and also perhaps if, at the spur of the moment, they need to bale hay, for example, and not everybody is there on the farm, they would need to call someone in from the city to help, and that would prohibit that.

CONAN: The idea is that this is primarily directed - and we're going to hear later from somebody at the Labor Department - this is primarily directed not against family farms, this is primarily directed against children who are hired migrant laborers.

BLANK: I would say some, yes, migrant laborers, but it's such a broad law that it doesn't really say migrant laborers per se on the rules and regulations. So the way that it is being interpreted, I think some of the fear comes from that it's not just migrant laborers or somebody coming in who's hired on the farm, but again those people who are not specifically related and live on the farm.

CONAN: Well, how is safety regulated now?

BLANK: Pretty much by the farmers themselves. I think the farmers are likely to assign things that are age-appropriate and skill-appropriate in most cases to their own children and all those who help, as well.

CONAN: Yet we also see statistics that agriculture is the most dangerous occupation.

BLANK: Exactly, and I don't think anyone argues that the revisions are needed. This would be the first rewrite of these proposals in more than 30 years. I think some of the sticking points come with who's going to enforce it, and we know best, speaking as farmers, farmers who live on the farms know best as to what's appropriate and what's not appropriate.

CONAN: There are - yes, we're talking about family farms, but we're talking in Iowa and most of the rest of the country, too, about corporate farms, and most of these regulations, it would seem, would apply to people working not only on those farms but in places like grain silos and meat-packing areas.

BLANK: Exactly.

CONAN: Yeah, and so in those kind - in other words, the reaction you're hearing, are people saying we don't need these regulations, or these regulations need to be tweaked so that they exempt the family farms even more than these ones do already?

BLANK: I think that's mostly the case, and in the reporting that I did, for example, the 70-year-old grandmother who I talked to said we taught these children to be safe. We taught them what was safe and how we did things on the farm, and we also instilled the passion for the farm. So the family farms are not dying, that we would continue to pass these on.

So I think that's the sticking point here in Iowa for much of it, and no one, again, argues that they're against safety. They want to make sure that some places are prohibited: grain elevators, grain bins, silos, feed lots. Those are all dangerous places for people any age, 16 or under or older.

CONAN: Well, so are tractors.

BLANK: True. Some of the - some of them would be prohibited from under age 16 operating almost all power-driven equipment. That would be four-wheelers, tractors and that kind of thing. So what has been proposed or what has been talked about is to bring this back to the classroom and have vocational agriculture teaching some of those things, teaching driver safety skills.

The problem with that is a lot of the budget cuts have cut those programs out of the schools and out of the budget.

CONAN: Let's bring Bill Northey into the conversation, secretary of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. He also comes from a long line of farmers, four generations, and he joins us now from his office here in Des Moines. Nice to have you with us today on TALK OF THE NATION.

BILL NORTHEY: Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And I know you've been a vocal opponent of these proposed laws. What's your issue?

NORTHEY: Yeah, the same as Pat has laid out here. I think they just go too far. You know, I think probably as you mentioned, the intention is correct, to be able to address some of the concerns where there are kids that are unrelated, they're migrant families, they're in situations with large numbers of employees.

But I think, whether accidentally or on purpose, these end up catching family farms, and they can catch family farms where the parent is just wanting to be able to be out there with children and having plenty of time to be able to teach them how to handle themselves around livestock or around equipment.

In some cases, you're going to have kids out there that will have a school permit that can drive to school but can't drive the tractor on their farm three miles an hour across a farmyard. And certainly even some challenges in taking care of livestock in 4H and FFA projects if it's read in its most aggressive form.

CONAN: Yet I'm sure the first thing we'll hear from the Department of Labor is wait a minute, there's an exception for family farms. The regulations presume that parents will take greater care for the safety of their own children, and therefore, these don't apply in those situations.

NORTHEY: And that does help certainly in some situations. If - my understanding as I read it, I made my way through the regulations, the exception is for someone who owns their own family farm, and it's their own kids - it's not their grandkids so that you'd have a challenge if you had a grandparent out there, and the son wasn't farming, or the daughter wasn't farming, and the grandkids wanted to come out.

You also have a challenge if it's a family farm corporation. Now, if it's owned solely by that family, these are family farms, as well. If they're owned solely by that family, there is an exception, but if it's owned by that family member and another brother - in fact, many of these farms out here are owned by several different family members. They are absolutely family farms in all ways except evidently according to these regulations.

And those exceptions don't capture those kinds of family farms in the way the regulations read right now.

CONAN: And also as we mentioned, rented land might not be covered, either.

NORTHEY: Yeah, I think there is a question mark about that. I would think you might be able to cover that under the family farm operation definition, but I think there certainly are folks that raise a question about that, as well.

CONAN: And some opponents say this is a case of far-off Washington making regulations about things people really don't have a clue about.

NORTHEY: Well, I guess we don't necessarily know intentions or the folks that put it together. I do think this is the value of having a comment period, in having a chance for people to be able to weigh in with their concerns.

Now, I assume the Department of Labor, then, will look at those concerns and realize that there are some - I would still hope these are unintended consequences to capture some of the family farm operations. Maybe they do intend to. I guess we'll see what the final rules look like. But I would hope that folks have laid out a lot of the situations that could be a problem and that those are understood and taken into account when they write a final rule.

CONAN: Bill Northey, secretary of the Iowa Department of Agriculture, with us today from his office in Des Moines, thanks very much for your time.

NORTHEY: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And here's an email from Ellen(ph) in Ann Arbor: How are they going to uphold these regulations for farms? Is the county sheriff going to be arresting owners of factory farms that have child migrant workers? Pat Blank, do the regulations speak to that?

BLANK: Not that I could see about how they're going to provide for that, and that was one of the things that came up with some of the reporting that I did. Some of the people said: OK, great, you put these in effect. Is it going to pit neighbor against neighbor, somebody sees one of the children driving the tractor who shouldn't be, are they going to call somebody and turn them in? I guess that's part of what needs to be decided by the Department of Labor.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Charles(ph) is with us from Kingston, Arizona.

CHARLES: Kingston, Arkansas.

CONAN: Arkansas, excuse me, AR, and I made the mistake, my apologies.

CHARLES: Yeah, I just wanted to say that farming and ranching is a culture. The only way that you can learn to do certain things is by doing them. And when you're a kid, if you're not out there participating, you're not going to learn. And it is dangerous, most of the things or many of the things you do on a farm are dangerous, but if you've ever tried to hire someone that wasn't raised on a farm to help you work on a farm, you just see that the danger is transferred to an older age.

You can't hire city people to work on farms. They can't do it. They don't know how to fix things. They don't know how to handle livestock. So a regulation like this that is basically unenforceable I think does more harm than good.

CONAN: Even though there is the exception for family farms?

CHARLES: Well, I wish I'd read the regulation. But I mean, one of my greatest experiences growing up was working for my neighbors. Would that have been illegal?

CONAN: I guess it would depend on the age and what you were asked to do, but you were asked to do some evidently dangerous things.

CHARLES: Yeah, a lot of the things we did were dangerous. As a ranch kid, probably the most dangerous thing you do is ride a horse. Are you going to say that you can't help your neighbors when you're 15 years old, help them round up their cattle? I think this is just another case of the government, maybe they've got other things they could be doing.

CONAN: Charles, thanks very much for the call, we appreciate it. We're talking about the regulations, proposed regulations, that would cover kids and agricultural work. Farmers, what do you think? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. You can also send us an email, talk@npr.org. More in just a minute. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan broadcasting today from the studios of Iowa Public Radio in Des Moines. We're talking about proposed regulations from the Labor Department that affect kids and agriculture, regulations directed at safety, safety primarily of the tens of thousands of kids who work as migrant workers on farms and grain silos and feed lots around the country, but regulations that many farmers say has maybe unintended consequences, attack a way of life that would affect family farms.

Even though there is an exemption for family farms, many farmers say the exemptions don't go far enough. Our guest is Pat Blank, a senior news producer for Iowa Public Radio, grew up on a farm and reported on these proposed regulations. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And let's go next to Richard, and Richard's with us from Red Love in California.

RICHARD: Hi, I do safety training for farm workers, plus I worked on farms since I was probably 12 or 13 years old, for the neighbors. And as people when they're younger can learn to do things that are harder (unintelligible) caller mentioned when they're older - and I have been 20 years of safety training, and it's - you know, it takes work. You need to work with them. It can't just be turn them loose.

But I learned to drive tractors and spray and pick on ladders very young, and it taught me a lot of responsibility, and you know, I realize the risk, and it helped me in training other people. And usually, you know, the families will work with them. They don't want their kids to get hurt, whether they're migrant or owners. And it's just takes - like learning to drive a car, if they start young and work with them and teach them the safety rules and the consequences, I think it's a lot better than it is to wait until somebody's older, and it's harder for them to learn, and they haven't worked.

CONAN: Richard, if you train safety, you are well aware then of the statistics. A lot of people get hurt on the farm, even if they're trained.

RICHARD: Yes, and I always bring up in my training that there's very few accidents. It's mostly careless acts. And they just need to be trained on what can happen and how to prevent it.

CONAN: So as you look at all those tractors that overturn, I think 1,400 people get injured every year in overturned tractors, this is something - are people when you train them trained to wear protective clothing, seat belts, that sort of thing?

RICHARD: Yes, a lot of the training I do is in orchards. So it's - sometimes they can't use the roll bars, but - so you know, train to have to be that much more careful. And if they, you know, if they have the roll bars, they absolutely have to wear seat belts. And, you know, of course I expose a lot of information on what has happened, and you know, review the consequences just like nothing - I just read a thing the other day, they were saying the most dangerous thing for a farm worker to do is to drive to work and go home.

CONAN: Well, that's probably true as well, but that's a problem that afflicts all of us, but...

RICHARD: Right, but you know, we can't rid of all the hazards, but by teaching people young, and especially people that are going to be involved in it the rest of their lives, they have a lot more opportunity to learn how to do it correctly from the beginning.

CONAN: Richard, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

RICHARD: Thank you.

CONAN: Pat Blank, I wanted to ask you the question - essentially I think what we're hearing from Bill Northey and from our callers is this is to some degree an apprenticeship and that unless you learn young, well, unless you spend years learning how to do this work, you're not going to learn how to do it.

BLANK: I think that's correct, and I think also that you won't have a fire in your belly for staying on the farm and continuing to be on the farm unless you started out doing it as a child.

CONAN: And give us an example from - if you would, if I'm not prying too much - from your own background. What did you learn to do young, and how did it change your life?

BLANK: I learned a lot of responsibility because - especially around the animals. I was responsible for - we had a lot of chickens. Actually, we had every animal. We had chickens, hogs and cattle. And it was my responsibility to make sure that the chickens got fed.

If I went to school and didn't feed the chickens, then they were hungry, and then they didn't produce eggs, and that was part of our livelihood. So I learned responsibility. And I also learned to be careful and to be - to look around me, just to look at my surroundings, to be careful by looking around and seeing what was ahead of me, not just looking what's on the ground and right in front of my nose.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Nancy, Nancy with us from Ann Arbor.

NANCY: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, go ahead, please.

NANCY: I just wanted to say I'm not sure what the answer is to all this, but I baled hay in eighth grade, ninth grade and 10th grade, and it was extraordinarily dangerous. I got heat stroke twice. I had a whole stack of hay fall on me. At the same time, it was a really valuable experience to me, and even now, and I can tell you absolutely that at the time, even though after the stack of hay fell on me, I would not have ever said no.

I would not have ever walked away from it, and I think that somebody needs to watch out for the kids because this is not something that I would want my kids to do. You're actually incentivized, if you had a whole team to bale hay, you got five cents a bale, but on the days that I did it all alone because I was the only one who showed up, I got 25 cents a bale.

So I think that somebody needs to watch out for the kids because they just don't have the wherewithal at that age to look out for their own safety and say no to things that are very dangerous.

CONAN: And was this on your family farm or working for somebody else?

NANCY: No, this was working for somebody else.

CONAN: All right, Nancy, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. I'm glad you got out from under that hay.


NANCY: Me too.

CONAN: Nancy Leppink is deputy administrator of the Wage and Hour Division at the Department of Labor. That's the division responsible for enforcing federal law on child labor. She joins us now by phone from Minnesota. And Nancy Leppink, thanks very much for your time today.

NANCY LEPPINK: My pleasure, thank you for having me.

CONAN: I know you've been listening to the broadcast so far, and I wonder, the exemptions for family farms, these are not set in concrete as I understand it. You've been listening to the comments that have been gathered over the past several months, and will those be taken into account?

LEPPINK: Well, first of all, just to correct something that you said when you introduced the program, and you said that 16 years and younger, and actually the regulations only apply to children who are 15 years and younger. So any child who's 16 years of age can perform any work no matter how hazardous on any farm in which they're employed.

The other thing that you should - people should understand is that the coverage of these - the coverage of these regulations is set by statute. And so consequently the provisions that relate to family farms and the provisions that relate to who is obligated to comply with the regulation is set by statute.

The only thing that these regulations that are being proposed do is that they look at the types of hazards that are present in agriculture and make a determination as to whether or not they're too hazardous for children to perform who are younger than the age of 16.

So issues related to, you know, the family farm exemption is really - is set by statute, and nothing in the regs that are being proposed makes any change regarding the coverage of the law that's been in effect for over 40 years.

CONAN: So just to clarify, if a family rents some acreage next door, would kids under the age of 16 be allowed to work on that?

LEPPINK: It depends on what they would be having them do. If they employ them and they - having them engage in activities that either the current regulations would prohibit or the proposed regulations would prohibit, then yes, that would be a child labor issue.

However, there's many things that children, you know, of all ages can do and can continue to do on farms and would be able to continue to do under the proposed regulations.

CONAN: Some - we saw some comments of people complaining if you kept your 4H animals on your grandmother's farm, that might not be permissible under these regulations.

LEPPINK: No, that's not - that's not correct, actually. There's - first of all, the child labor regulations only apply for when there's an employment relationship. So children who are participating in 4H, children who are participating in Future Farmers of America, none of those activities are going to be affected by this proposed regulation.

CONAN: And the other objection we heard from Bill Northey, that some farms are partnerships now, they're not strictly owned by individual families but by groups of families, would the regulations apply in those circumstances?

LEPPINK: Well, again, it's not so much the regulations but it's whether the statute applies, and under those circumstances, because as I said, nothing in the regulations that are being proposed changes the coverage of the statute; all it does it deal with the types of - it adds to the hazards that children or the types of jobs that children cannot be employed in on farms.

So for the question regarded - regarding, like, limited liability corporations, that if the child - if the child is the child of a parent who's operating that farm or has an owner, who's an owner in that LLC of the farm, then that child can still fall within the exemption.

CONAN: The family farm exemption. And is it correct to...

LEPPINK: It's not really a family farm exemption. It's more an exemption for the children of parents who own or operate a farm.

CONAN: And is it correct to say that the intention here is to make it safer for persons under the age of 16? We're talking more about migrants than about the children of farmers.

LEPPINK: We're talking about children who are employed to work on farms, who are not the children of the owner or operator of the farm.

CONAN: And, again, the question that we had on enforcement, some people say it's unenforceable. In fact, that would be your responsibility, no?

LEPPINK: It - so it certainly is enforceable. The Wage and Hour Division is responsible for enforcing the Fair Labor Standards Act, which includes the child labor laws. And we spend a significant percentage of our enforcement resources on engaging in enforcement activities in agriculture and, in fact, have had several initiatives in agriculture in the last couple of years, particularly in the blueberry industry, but also targeted investigations on the West Coast, in the strawberry industry. And so consequently, these laws are very much a priority for the Department of Labor, and we put significant resources into their enforcement.

CONAN: We know the comment period has expired. What's the next step? Where do we go from here?

LEPPINK: Well, the department received over 10,000 comments on this proposed regulation. We extended the comment period by 30 days to ensure that all persons who had concerns regarding the regulations, both in favor or against, have the opportunity to comment. So the next steps are to review all of the comments that we've received, to take them into consideration for purposes of making changes to the regs based on those comments. And then once the comments - all the comments have been considered and appropriate changes have been made, then the rule will be published in its final form.

CONAN: When would you expect that? Just a broad time frame.

LEPPINK: Well, it's difficult to know, simply because 10,000 comments are a lot, and so it takes some time to give them the kind of review that they deserve. But I would say it's, you know, it's a several-month process.

CONAN: Nancy Leppink, thanks very much for your time.

LEPPINK: It's my pleasure. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Nancy Leppink, deputy administrator of the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor. We're talking about agriculture and kids on the farm. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And let's get Brian on the line, Brian with us from Eagle in Michigan.

BRIAN: How are you doing? I have a small family farm. We have horses, pigs, sheep, chickens. I also have three of my neighbor's kids. Two of them are age 11. One of them's age nine. They come out just about every day and do something on the farm. And the question I have is if these regulations passed, since they're not my kids - we aren't employing them to do anything, but do I have to keep them off the farm?

CONAN: I - as I was just hearing Nancy Leppink, I believe it has to do only with situations of employment where you're paying them. But, Pat Blank, you may understand these regulations a lot better than I do.

BLANK: That's the way I read it, as long as you don't employ them.

CONAN: And so these kids aren't getting paid, Brian?

BRIAN: Nope. They come out because they like to work with the animals and they want to learn something about farming.

CONAN: It sounds like, at least as far as we understand it - we're not going to provide you defense attorneys if we're wrong. But as far as we understand it, I think you're going to be OK.

BRIAN: All right. Well, that makes sense to me.

CONAN: And, Brian, let me just ask you: What do you think they learn in the process of working with the animals?

BRIAN: Well, the most important thing is when they come out, especially when you're working with a large animal like a horse, they have to learn respect. And that's - if you watch the animal, the animal will normally tell you what it's going to do. There is some danger. You know, there's danger getting in the car and getting on the expressway that's probably far greater than what they ever see on the farm.

But, you know, you learn to read the animals. You learn to respect the animals. And once you can figure out what the animal is going to do, you can't ever eliminate all the danger, but it's certainly - people have been doing it for thousands of years, and children have been doing it for thousands of years, and that's how they learn.

CONAN: And how old are these kids?

BRIAN: They're - one's nine, and two are 11.

CONAN: And I assume you watch them pretty carefully to make sure they're doing age-appropriate tasks. I think we lost the caller, and I apologize for that. So, Pat Blank, given the time frame, it sounds like we're going to be talking about, well, several months before these regulations are published.

BLANK: Exactly. And we should probably also mention, Neal, that 70 members of the U.S. House and 28 senators have signed a letter and sent it to the labor secretary, calling for a withdrawal of the proposal altogether.

CONAN: Withdrawal of the proposal altogether - even though, I think, everybody we've spoken with said, wait a minute. Yes, of course, safety is important in places, as you mentioned, like silos and feedlots.

BLANK: Exactly. What they have said is that it's puzzling why the department would suddenly propose some changes to the existing regulations, particularly because we've had advances in farm equipment and the adoption of technologies that improved operator safety over the last 35 years. So they question the timing of this.

CONAN: Thirty-five years. That's the last time these regulations were revised, and other people might say we've learned a lot about safety since then, too.

BLANK: Right. And a lot of the equipment is also safer, and some of the training is more intense. You know, some of the things that we did - I'm talking back in the '60s, you know, nobody wore a mask when they did spraying out in the farm field and, you know, we rode on the tractor with bare feet.

CONAN: How would this - I've read some comments that this might increase reliance on migrant labor.

BLANK: Perhaps. I'm not sure that would be the case in Iowa.

CONAN: In Iowa. It would depend on the crop and the way the farming is set up.

BLANK: Right. We - I - we don't depend a lot on migrant workers for corn and soybeans.

CONAN: Pat Blank, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

BLANK: My pleasure.

CONAN: Pat Blank, senior news producer for Iowa Public Radio, with us from their studios in Cedar Falls. When we come back after a short break, we're going to be talking about laws that require failure to disclose positive HIV status to sexual partners as a crime. That's the case in more than 30 states, including this one in Iowa. It's a Class B felony that could put you in jail for 25 years. More on than that we return. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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