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Government reconsidering rule change on child farm labor
Morgan Bangert started bottle feeding newborn calves when she was 5. By the time she was 8, she was showing a 1,000-pound heifer at the fair. At age 12, she was driving a tractor and raking hay.
She's given cattle medication injections, she's helped with castration, she's even assisted with breeding through artificial insemination. She drives a four-wheeler out to the field to check on the herd, and it's her job to feed about 80 cows every day when she comes home from school.
Despite the fact that her stepfather, Mike Aufdenberg, trusts Bangert to handle these tasks, a new rule proposed by the U.S. Department of Labor would prevent children under age 16 from doing this type of work for pay because her family's farm isn't solely owned by her parents. It's an LLC, jointly owned by Mike Aufdenberg and his brother, Steve, whose children also help out on the family farm.
The current parental exemption law allows children of any age who are employed by their parents to perform any job on a farm as long as their parent is a part-owner, according to the Labor Department.
The proposed rule would bar children younger than 16 years old from jobs like operating power equipment, driving four wheelers or tractors, branding and breeding farm animals, and working on ladders at heights over six feet unless the child's parent is the sole owner of the farming operation.
The Labor Department first announced the new rules on child labor in agriculture last fall. This month the department said it would repropose the parental exemption portion of the rule following an outcry from family farmers. The department has not specified what the changes would be.
Between the Aufdenberg brothers, there are seven children ages 10 to 18 helping out on the family farm near Tilsit.
"We train them all from a very early age," Mike Aufdenberg said. "Before they drive a tractor, they start them off riding along, then they move along to driving and a parent rides along until I get to the point where I can trust them. We have two-way radio systems on our tractors so any time there's a question or problem, we teach them to stop and call on the radio."
Aufdenberg said no parent is going to risk putting a child on a piece of equipment they can't handle. While riding along with his then 14-year-old some years ago, Aufdenberg reminded him that the combine he was driving cost more than most people's houses.
"It's my money at stake. It's my livelihood on the line if something goes wrong," he said.
While agriculture advocates are pleased the rule change will be reproposed, they would like to see the whole regulation withdrawn.
Effects on FFA
One portion of the rule that isn't being reproposed puts the hands-on component of high school agriculture programs, like FFA, at risk, they say.
"These rules are really going to hurt our program," said Bangert's teacher, Dan Burkemper, agriculture instructor at Jackson High School. "FFA is not just supposed to be a stand-alone course in a classroom."
He has about 150 students, including Bangert, enrolled in the Supervised Agricultural Experience component of FFA.
According to the Missouri Farm Bureau, more than half of Missouri agriculture students, about 14,000, are in SAE programs where they work on a farm in some capacity.
"As the rule making stands today, 14- and 15-year-old students enrolled in agriculture education courses in high school will be limited in the options they have for their Supervised Agricultural Experiences (SAE), the hands-on work experiences they receive outside of the classroom," said Garrett Hawkins, director of national legislative programs for the Missouri Farm Bureau Federation. For students who do not live on a farm or ranch, this part of the agriculture education model gives them to the opportunity to develop skills and explore potential career paths by working for a farmer or as part of an agribusiness, Hawkins said.
The Labor Department's proposed rule is aimed at increasing protections for children working in agriculture and references several statistics from farm accident studies.
Agriculture has the second-highest fatality rate among young workers, age 15 to 24, at 21.3 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers, compared to 3.6 across all industries, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The most common cause of occupational deaths among young agricultural workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, was from farm machinery. Between 1992 and 1997, nearly one third of the deaths of teens in agriculture could be attributed to involvement with tractors. In half of these cases, the tractor overturned.
The proposed rule also cites concerns with the exposure of young workers to pesticides.
Paul Schlegel, director of the energy and environment team for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said there is not enough data specific to agriculture workers under age 16 to justify what the Labor Department is proposing.
"There's nothing that I'm aware of that delineates accident or injury rates for children working on their parents' farm, or their uncle's farm or their grandparents' farm," Schlegel said.
Aufdenberg's farm has been in his family for 140 years, and he's raising his children the same way he was raised.
"It teaches kids responsibility," he said.
Jackson agriculture instructor Laura Nothdurft said students who have worked on their family's farms are better problem solvers and have better relationships with their parents compared to other students. Burkemper said these students are also more mature.
What many children would consider hard work, Bangert is eager to do in an effort to learn. What she earns, she reinvests in the farm. She now has three cows in her own name.
"They become like your best friend because you're out here morning and night with them," Bangert said. "At the fair, when you have to sell them, I always cry. You get so connected to them. They know you and you know them."
Someday, she hopes to carve out a farm of her own on a piece of her family's land.
Although the formal comment period has ended, the Labor Department in a news release said it will continue to consider feedback from the public, congress and the Department of Agriculture before it's finalized. Comments may be mailed to Wage and Hour Division, U.S. Department of Labor, Room S 3502, 200 Constitution Avenue, NW., Washington, D.C. 20210.
In response to the proposed rule, a new national advocacy group called Keep Families Farming has formed. More information can be found at www.keepfamiliesfarming.com.