Since 1966, family farms enjoyed a broad "parental exemption" so their children could work in the fields, but this past Sept. 2 the Department of Labor (DOL), seeking to redefine that parental exemption, drew a firestorm of criticism from owners of family farms and agricultural associations when its new definition was viewed as too restrictive.

The parental exemption allows children of any age who are employed by their parent, or a person standing in the place of a parent, to perform any job on a farm owned or operated by their parent or such person standing in the place of a parent. Congress created the parental exemption in 1966 when it expanded protections for children employed in agriculture and prohibited their employment in jobs the Department of Labor declared particularly hazardous for children under the age of 16 to perform.

The DOL's Wage and Hour Division (WHD) was driven to update its 40-year-old child labor regulations by studies showing that children are significantly more likely to be killed while performing agricultural work than while working in all other industries combined. The department's child labor in agriculture statutory authority extends only to children employed in agriculture who are 15 years of age or younger.

As a result of the public commentary it received about the proposed new defintion, however, the DOL announced this past week that it would come up with a revised definition by early summer, at which time it would solicit still further public commentary.

A group of 72 agricultural associations was at the forefront of those groups challenging the new definition, saying it “would significantly curtail the employment opportunities available to youth working in U.S. agriculture….”