Locals React to DOL’s Failed Farm Proposal
Some Peoria County residents believe the U.S. Department of Labor’s failed proposal is a prime example of over-regulation.
In the midst of a slumping economy and a state unemployment rate of 8.2 percent, one wouldn’t imagine agriculture to be on the short list of hot button political issues. But since the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) proposed a regulation that would have prohibited young people from operating farm machinery, local residents and some local farmers have been speaking out.
Protection or Over-regulation?
For generations, agricultural skills and knowledge have been passed down to young people through on-the-job-training on family farms. But recent safety concerns prompted the DOL to propose a regulation that would have limited farmers’ ability to hire young people to work in agriculture and prohibited youth from operating farm machinery. With the exception of children who worked on farms owned by their parents, the proposal would have mandated that farm workers under sixteen years of age could not operate power equipment, such as tractors, and could not work grain elevators, silos and feed slots unless they were at least 18 years of age.
In response, members of congress co-authored a letter to U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis protesting the regulation as exerting a negative impact on youth participating in various agricultural sectors, among them commodity transport, livestock and grain production and youth agricultural education. The letter also requested that the length of time farmers were given to voice their opinions on the regulation be extended. Congressional members also co-sponsored HR 4157, the Preserving America’s Family Farms Act, prohibiting the DOL from enacting the proposed regulation.
Local farmers believe hands-on training in the fields is the best preparation for young people hoping to operate their own farms as adults.
“You can’t keep accidents from happening through government regulation any more than you can keep youth from getting into car crashes,” says Daryl Swisher who hires young people to help operate his farm each summer. “Personally, I think an eleven-year-old driving a tractor in an empty field would be safer than a sixteen-year-old driving in rush-hour traffic.”
Other farmers don’t like the idea of limiting jobs for young people looking to get a taste of the workforce or gain experience in the agricultural field. For some children growing up in the country and looking for summer employment, farm work is the only option.
“With the economy the way it is, the very idea of taking jobs away from kids that are ready and willing to begin working is ludicrous,” says Barbara Bennett who grew up working summers on a farm but now works as a part-time elementary school teacher. “I would think that the government would want to provide as many ways as possible for youth to gain as much experience as necessary for future jobs or for future careers. This proposal would have changed everything, and I’m glad we have people in position that understand that and can stop it.”
Others cite the DOL’s proposal as another example of government over-regulation. “There’s always a risk when you operate any type of farm equipment,” says Pat Scotchtrup who helps run his older brother’s farm near Dunlap. “You can’t limit risks by regulating age limits. I could have an accident tomorrow, and I’m nearly fifty years old, but then again that’s the government for you.”
The U.S. Labor Department pointed to government figures that showed farm-related injuries occur most frequently to children between the ages of ten and fifteen, even though such injuries have been on the decline over the past decade. The decline is attributed to farmers’ keener awareness of potential accidents, which has prompted them to take steps to curb risks associated with very young children working on farms. Other farmers have argued that children who begin feeding animals, gathering eggs or milking cows at ages as young as four and five grow up learning how to avoid the inherent risks of farming as they begin performing more complicated tasks and operating equipment.
“You teach young people about the dangers of driving a tractor like you would teach them about the dangers of riding their bike in the street,” says Daryl. “You tell them what to do and not do, what to watch for and what to be careful of. You give them rules and set boundaries. We don’t need the government doing it for us.”
The U.S. Labor Department has since dropped its proposal due to unwavering opposition from agricultural groups, such as the American Farm Bureau Federation. In a statement released by the U.S. Department of Labor earlier this year, the DOL announced the withdrawal of the proposed rule:
“The decision to withdraw this rule . . .was made in response to thousands of comments expressing concerns about the effect of the proposed rules on small family-owned farms … Instead, the Departments of Labor and Agriculture will work with rural stakeholders—such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmer’s Union, the Future Farmers of America and 4-H—to develop an educational program to reduce accidents to young workers and promote safer agricultural working practices.”