Labor laws hurting more than agriculture

Amidst state enactment of highly restricted migrant labor laws comes announcement by the Department of Labor that new, equally restrictive, Federal policies may be forthcoming for on-farm laborers.

We’re not talking foreign labor here! These guidelines would prohibit some farm kids, rural kids or any kids under 18, from doing some of the most rudimentary of farm work. There are loopholes, but only if a parent owns the farm.

The revisions, the first since 1970, would impact the Fair Labor Standards Act, which bars young workers from certain tasks, and are intended to bring restrictions on young agricultural workers more in line with those that already exist for young people working in other industries.

Specifically, the new rules would prohibit farm workers under age 16 from participating in the cultivation and harvesting of crops. And it would prohibit youth in both agricultural and non-agricultural employment from using electronic, including communication, devices while operating power-driven equipment.

There is also a new non-agricultural hazardous occupations order proposed that would prevent minors under 18 from being employed in the storing, marketing and transporting of farm product raw materials. Prohibited places of employment would include country grain elevators, grain bins, silos, feedlots, stockyards, livestock exchanges and livestock auctions.

Two Facebook friends recently posted that had these proposed laws been in enforced in the 1960s, one would very likely not be president of a large agricultural products distribution company and the other very likely wouldn’t be an ag economist in charge of making buying and investment decisions for one of the country’s largest grain buyers.

The most recent proposed changes in the DOL standard also would prohibit farm workers under 16 from operating almost all power-driven equipment.

Needless to say my pleasant summer days spent working on my Uncle Jimmy’s farm would be out of the question. As best I can recall, I was 12 and 13 the two years I worked on the farm. I drove a tractor hauling watermelons out of the field and even tried my hand — very briefly — at picking cotton.

My uncle, long-sinse dead and a long-time skeptic of government policies that restricted his farming career, is no doubt gyrating in his grave if the latest round of government idiocracy has reached that far up or down.

Since Uncle Jimmy was my uncle, not my father, he would have been at risk of breaking federal law had such foolish guidelines been intact back in the mid-1960s. If he was alive today, I can almost certainly predict his three word commentary on these most recent changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act. He would have more graphically phrased — male siblings of female dogs — and his commentary would have been followed by a big spit of tobacco juice and push back of his ever-present Stetson hat.

When the Fair Labor Standards Act was ushered into law in 1938, I’m sure there was a dire need for such federal intervention. Even when the Act was upgraded in the 1970s, I am likewise sure there needed to be changes made to bring it into what was for agriculture like coming out of the stone ages and into a modern era of high powered farm equipment.

I don’t even doubt that modern-day changes are needed today. Certainly agriculture is dramatically different today than it was in the 1970s. Hopefully, it is different in a better way and in a way that is much less dangerous to people who work on a farm.

If the Department of Labor had done their homework and brought forth meaningful changes in the Act, I am confident agriculture would have supported it whole-heartedly. Clearly, no such effort to understand the impact of the latest round of changes will have on modern agriculture was made.

I’m not opposed to, and in fact support, tough child labor laws. I know there is a need to protect America’s youth from unscrupulous people, even family members, who would stoop to forcing kids to work for long hours with little or no reward.

But come on! Passing laws that would prevent a teenager from working on his uncle’s farm — that’s not protecting America’s youth. It’s more like robbing them of an opportunity to learn how to work in an environment that’s set up to help them, not hurt them.

My Uncle Jimmy paid me royally to work part-time on his farm in the summer. As I recall, I got a dollar to spend at Zachry’s Feed and Seed every Thursday when he and Aunt Addie went to buy groceries. And, this wasn’t your momma’s feed and seed — they had Topps bubble gum and baseball cards. They had new 16-ounce Double Colas and they had dime bags of roasted peanuts.

My fringe benefits included picking out which watermelon to cut first after supper and my career development opportunities included learning to drive a 1950s vintage Farmall tractor.

After all these years and from my perspective, life just doesn’t get much better than that. Pity that pending legislation could rob the next generations of making those life-altering social and career moves.

TAGS: Legislative
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