Young workers aid farms, maintain traditions



For the Capital Press

I slipped out of bed, pulled up my jeans and boots, and headed downstairs. School was out for the summer and my friends and I were headed for the berry fields of Washington County or hazelnut orchards of Yamhill.

And so went the routine for many of my days as a teenager in Oregon.

Oregonians are closely tied to their land and nothing gives you a greater appreciation for it than getting your hands in the dirt. It wasn't just a job, but a coming of age in the culture of Oregon.

I feel Oregon's culture slipping with each generation that misses the chance to grow up close to the land. It's why we have to do all we can to preserve this experience for our youth.

Now, citing safety, the federal government has proposed unnecessary new regulations that will take even more of our young workers off our farms and ranches. But Oregon already has a system in place to keep young workers safe and provide a good workforce for farmers.

As commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries, it's my responsibility to protect young workers in Oregon.

Today, the Child Labor Unit requires employers that wish to employ minors to get a certificate allowing young workers to perform work that they might otherwise not be able to do. We deny certification when the risk is too high and grant it when the business can show proper precautions have been met. Employers who skirt the rules and put children in harm's way are prosecuted severely.

It's a system that has worked well. Since 2001, an average of only 0.7 percent of agricultural workers under the age of 18 have been injured on the job each year. The comparable injury rate for adults is nearly 2.5 times as high: 1.7 percent.

It's essential to maintain the balance between safety and access to good jobs for our young workers. This is especially true in agriculture. Young workers have always been a critical part of Oregon's agricultural industry. They provide a workforce that enables many farms to plant and harvest at the time the job needs doing.

Unfortunately, under the proposed rules, valuable FFA, 4-H and vocational programs that teach young people how to safely operate farm machinery would no longer be recognized as certifying authorities for those activities. Young workers wouldn't be able to work with animals in some settings -- like gathering chickens for market or assisting in the delivery of a calf. Youth wouldn't be allowed to work at heights above 6 feet. No more ladders, hay lofts or climbing into the cab of the combine.

The real risk here is that decreasing training opportunities and real life experience for young workers makes them less prepared for the risks of agricultural work later.

And, in many cases, this would completely preclude the next generation of Oregonians from growing up in one of our great traditions -- agriculture. It could also cripple the industry, which relies on this young workforce to succeed.

The stability of our agricultural industry is critical. Over 97 percent of Oregon's farms and ranches are family owned and over 1,100 of them have been in the family at least 100 years. And, we're good at what we do. Oregon is first in the nation for Christmas trees, hazelnuts, grass seed, clover, blackberries, boysenberries, azaleas and peppermint. Agriculture is a $4.1 billion industry that occupies 28 percent of Oregon's land.

The industry provides fertile ground for both crops and careers. And Oregon knows how to safely involve young workers in agriculture -- it's an important tradition. That's why I've asked the feds to recognize our success and rethink whether their new rules have a place here.

Brad Avakian is Oregon's Commissioner of Labor and Industries and oversees the enforcement of farm and forest labor law as well as child labor law in the state.

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