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Child Labor Laws: What You Need to Know for On-Farm Helpers

Family on a farm

Obtaining workers for your farm can be a challenge, especially since the work is often part-time and seasonal. Young workers can be a solution, but it's critical to obey federal and state child labor laws regarding their employment.

General Rules

The federal government's Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) defines allowable agricultural employment by age. There is also a special provision for younger children on family-owned farms. Although the federal rules relate to agricultural goods leaving the state of origin, in a contest between state and federal laws, the more stringent rules apply.

In addition, state laws govern the issuing of work permits — another necessary step to hiring underage workers. Some states limit or relax hours worked by children, but again, the more stringent law applies.

Age of Workers

On a family-owned farm, children of any age can work under the supervision of their parents, according to the FLSA. Safety rules regarding hazardous occupations apply for minors under age 16.

What about workers who aren't part of the family? The law notes that children as young as 10 and 11 may harvest short-season crops for up to eight weeks in the summer and fall. This work must fall outside school hours and a special waiver must be obtained from the Secretary of Labor. However, the use of pesticides on crops has resulted in many waivers being denied.

A special provision for those under age 12 involves farms where no workers fall under minimum wage laws: They may work during non-school hours with parental consent. Parental consent (or supervision) is also required for 12 and 13-year-olds.

Once youths reach age 14, they may work any job on the farm that's defined as non-hazardous. Once they turn 16, they may work any and all farm jobs without restriction.

Hazardous Occupations

While working on a farm can be fun and interesting, there are many dangers. In fact, agriculture is regarded as one of the most dangerous occupations. Proper training, safety gear and adherence to federal law are critical to protecting both worker and farmer. The following regulations noted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information apply to workers under age 16, except those working on farms owned or operated by their parents. Another exception exists for those 14 and older who are in agricultural training programs or hold 4-H certificates.

For workers younger than 16, driving tractors with over 20 horsepower is forbidden, as well as the operation of mechanized pickers, diggers, balers, combines, mowers and more. Other tools — such as chainsaws, excavation equipment and forklifts — are also off limits. Basically, any tool with the potential to injure or kill should not be operated by children.

Other farm hazards include climbing ladders over 20 feet in the air, handling breeding livestock or newborn animals and their mothers, driving vehicles and working inside silos or manure pits.

Hours of Work

In addition to regulations concerning hiring young people, there are rules regarding how long (and late) they can work, too. Those over age 16 can work unlimited hours, even during the school year. Younger children must only work during non-school hours, but the total number of hours isn't defined.

Interestingly, for non-agricultural occupations, the rules are more stringent. States have created laws limiting hours worked by underage employees. For example, the state of Washington limits hours worked by 14- and 15-year-olds to just 16 per week when school is in session.

Young workers can provide a solution for your farm. However, while employing the next generation of potential farmers is important, ensuring their safety and maintaining school performance is imperative. If you have any questions about hiring help, consult your lawyer to make sure you are in line with all child labor laws. This content is provided solely for informational purposes. It is not intended as and does not constitute legal advice.