Farmers may feel impact of proposed child labor law changes

The Kansas City StarJanuary 3, 2012 

Not long ago at church, a grown-up asked Adam Mershon, 11, if he planned on being a farmer like his dad, granddad and great-granddad.

“I already am a farmer,” he replied.

For about as long as Adam can remember, he has been feeding cattle with his cousins on Grandpa Tom’s farm near Buckner.

He’s been fixing fences. Delivering calves, up to his elbows. Years back, he’d climb on his father’s lap to steer the tractor.

The Mershons call it a lifestyle they’d never trade.

The federal government calls it child labor that ought to be restricted.

If recent proposals from the U.S. Department of Labor become law, Adam may have to wait five years before he can be paid to drive a tractor, climb more than six feet up a ladder or perform other farm jobs deemed hazardous.

The proposed rules — the first to address youth labor in more than four decades — have stirred alarm and confusion among family farms, where children have been pitching in since mankind’s earliest harvests.

Parents could still employ their sons and daughters under age 16 if the work is done outside school hours. Unpaid help also would be exempt from regulation, which is good and bad news for Adam — who claims to enjoy working for no more than “three hots, a cot and a roof over my head.”

He could continue doing jobs on his grandfather’s farm until he’s 16, under the government’s proposals, so long as he’s working for free.

For farmers employing youngsters other than their own children — for example, their nephews and nieces, grandchildren or kids under 16 — the proposals would plow over timeless traditions:

• Paid workers age 15 and younger would be barred from operating tractors, combines, ATVs and almost all power-driven equipment, unless they obtain special certification.

• Youths under the age of 18 would not be allowed to work at grain elevators, silos, feed lots, livestock auctions or in the transporting of raw farm materials.

• Tobacco fields would be off-limits to workers under age 16 due to concerns about a problem called green-tobacco sickness, caused by the exposure to nicotine.

• Children in both agricultural and non-farm work would be restricted from using personal electronic devices, including walkie-talkies, while operating equipment.

Federal officials and workplace safety groups contend the rules are needed to protect youngsters engaged in one of the most dangerous industries in the nation: The fatality rate for young agricultural workers is four times greater than that of their peers employed off the farm. And young Hispanic workers who have trouble with the English language make the work riskier, advocates argue.

“While we understand with some families there’s a history of having children work on the farm, that doesn’t make it safe,” said Jeff Newman of the National Child Labor Committee, a non-governmental advocacy group based in New York.

He said the rules would impose on family farms many of the same regulations that have applied to other work sites since the early 1970s.

“The fact is, kids are at risk when driving a tractor,” Newman said. “I’ve been president of the NCLC since 1974, and this has been a simmering issue since about that time.”

Now the issue is boiling over in Washington, where 32 U.S. senators — including all four from Missouri and Kansas — have petitioned the Department of Labor to reconsider its proposals.

Missouri Republican Roy Blunt calls them a “ridiculous” threat to the future of family farming.

Senators Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, and Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson penned a letter last month to Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis challenging her department’s sweeping definition of “hazardous.” The senators recommended that different levels of horsepower in tractors be taken into consideration.

Their letter also denounced as arbitrary the Labor Department’s attempt to prohibit young workers from “engaging or assisting in animal husbandry practices that inflict pain upon the animal (or) result in unpredictable animal behavior.”

The rules would not apply to children raising animals in projects sponsored by the 4-H or Future Farmers of America, because those activities don’t pay children, a department official said.

Washington is simply missing the point, farm groups argue.

“Putting our children to work is not about the economics. It’s a social and cultural thing,” said Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau. “I tell you, this is how we train our kids to be productive people in life.

“The training I got when I was a boy was invaluable. I was doing a man’s work and I was treated like a man, and that felt great.”

Farm youngsters commonly drive tractors at age 10 or 11, having spent years in the cab’s buddy seat watching their elders do it.

By age 15, wages often accompany the work.

“First and foremost in the minds of farmers is, of course, the safety of their families,” said Bill Spiegel, spokesman for the Kansas Wheat Commission. “You don’t let your kids do dangerous things without all the best training you can give them.

“This is the perfect example of Washington being really out of touch.”

For third-generation wheat grower Joe Kejr, the summertime harvest is an extended family affair.

His brothers and their kids join Kejr and his own. At 14 years of age, “my daughter Robyn was probably the best cart operator we ever had,” Kejr said.

The Saline County clan breaks from the grain carts and John Deere combines to feast at picnic tables next to Kejr’s fields.

The work and supper conversations “teach them how to give their best, which is what we need in this society,” Kejr said. “If I hadn’t worked on the farm as a kid, really, what would I do with all my time?”

The harvest-time wages have allowed the younger Kejrs to save for college, he said. Son Josh is now pursuing a career in agriculture at Kansas State University, giving Kejr hope that his farm will stay within the family.

In the United States, about 29 out of every 100,000 farm workers are killed on the job, but the death rates are slightly lower for workers ages 15 to 24, according to the National Safety Council. Citing safety features on newer equipment, the National Farm Medicine Center in Wisconsin reports that the childhood injury rate on farms fell 59 percent from 1998 to 2008.

Because of political opposition from farm-state representatives in Washington, the new proposals may yet be abandoned, rewritten or debated for a couple of years before taking effect, safety advocates said.

“What is good about this is that it has opened an important dialogue. Hopefully, the Department of Labor will listen to farmers” before outlawing valued traditions, said Shari Burgus, education director for the nonprofit Farm Safety 4 Just Kids.

For 16-year-old David Mershon, Adam’s cousin, working the farm offers “a lot of life lessons — hard work, doing things right the first time, all these things I bring into school every day.”

His brother Thomas Mershon, now a University of Missouri student, is back on the farm for winter break, boots covered in mud. He said he would’ve felt slighted as a boy if told he was too little to haul hay bales or vaccinate a calf.

He called his farm upbringing “the single largest catalyst in my life.” And the wages he began earning at about 14 allowed Thomas Mershon to keep up with friends working fast-food or grocery jobs, if they worked at all.

Sitting around the oak table in Janet Mershon’s kitchen, the youths and Adam’s parents, Tim and Nikki Mershon, report that not one of the kids missed a day of work due to injury.

Grandma Janet rapped her knuckles on the tabletop. “Knock on wood,” she said.

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