Update to labor laws could prevent youths from doing certain tasks

From driving tractors to vaccinating calves, farm families worry that changes to federal laws governing what work youths can get paid to do on the farm could change their way of life.

Last fall, the U.S. Department of Labor proposed changes to the rules that prevent young workers from being paid to do certain tasks in the agriculture industry. Those laws, known as agricultural hazardous occupations orders, hadn’t been updated since 1970. The intent is to bridge the gap between rules for farms and the more stringent rules that youths not working in agricultural settings have to follow.

“Children employed in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable workers in America,” Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said.

But farmers, including those in Douglas County, say family farming isn’t like any other industry. And those rules would go beyond changing how farmers do business to eroding the fabric of farming communities.

“I think there are a lot of families who couldn’t do what they do if they don’t have their kids helping them,” Brenna Wulfkuhle said.

Wulfkuhle, who with her husband, Mark, operates Rocking H Ranch three miles south of Stull, has three daughters under the age of 16. The family also employes a high school student. For Wulfkuhle, there is much in the proposed changes that raises concerns.

“To me, there is a lot of integrity and a lot of just good work ethic that comes from kids that are raised in agriculture or work in an agriculture background,” Wulfkuhle said.

Confusion about changes

Children of parents who own or operate a farm would still be exempted from the new regulations. But what isn’t clear are what rules apply to youths who work on their grandparents’ or aunt and uncle’s farm, rented land or on a farm that is part of a business entity, corporation or partnership. And that last item is an issue for many local families who have turned farms into corporations for estate-planning purposes.

“We are one of the smaller farms in Douglas County as far as conventional agricultural,” said Clint Hornberger, a fifth-generation farmer in southern Douglas County. “We do operate as a corporation. We formed in the ’80s to make the transition from one generation to the next a whole lot easier.”

Hornberger said that when he was growing up, he was paid 25 cents for every calf he bottle fed. It wouldn’t come to much more than $3 a day, but under the proposed changes he doesn’t think that would be allowed to work because the family farm is under a corporation.

“If they figured out a way to enforce some of the proposed changes, I think it would (negatively) influence the ability to learn about agriculture and learn about an industry that has a lot to offer,” Hornberger said.

Here are some of the other changes:

• Paid workers younger than 16 couldn’t operate almost any power-driven equipment, such as tractors, ATVs and grain elevators. The worker also couldn’t ride as a passenger on farm machines when they are being driven on public roads.

• Paid workers younger than 16 couldn’t help with certain animal related chores, such as branding, breeding, dehorning, vaccinating, castrating or treating sick or injured animals. They also couldn’t help herd animals into feed lots or corrals when on horseback or using trucks or ATVs.

• Paid workers younger than 16 couldn’t work inside a grain silo or bin or manure pit.

• Those 18 or younger would be prohibited from working at grain elevators, feed lots, stockyards, livestock exchanges and livestock auctions.

Denying kids lessons

For Wulfkuhle, putting restrictions on what farming kids can do limits the lessons they learn from growing up around agriculture. Along with instilling the basics of hard work, Wulfkuhle said, it also passes down the knowledge of how to farm.

Right now, her girls, ages 15, 13 and 10, help with many of the tasks that she fears might not be allowed under the changes, such as vaccinating cattle, sorting cattle in small areas and moving farm machinery in the fields.

Wulfkuhle grew up on a dairy farm where she milked cows before and after school. In high school, she participated in a supervised occupational experience program, working at a greenhouse and local vet.

One of Wulfkuhle’s biggest concerns is that the proposed changes would limit what students can do when they participate in such a program. One of the men hired on Wulfkuhle’s farm began his work through a supervised occupational program as a junior in high school. That was almost a decade ago.

“It is very difficult to start in agriculture without a little bit of background and a little bit of a foundation,” she said.

Both Wulfkuhle and Hornberger don’t shy away from the risks the occupation can bring.

“Our job is dangerous,” Hornberger said. “But part of growing up around that environment is learning the dangers at a young age so you can stay away from them.”

The vast majority of young workers are the owner’s children, relatives or neighbors, Hornberger said.

“Around here, the youths that are working in agriculture are all very much a part of the community. They are not a stranger, someone that someone doesn’t know on a personal level. To think we as ag producers or employers would put them in danger is kind of preposterous.”

By Christine Metz

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