It has been a long-standing – yet little-known – fact that labor laws in the United States give agriculture special treatment.

Cordoned off as an industry apart, U.S. agriculture receives minimal regulation when it comes to its young labor force.  The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) passed in 1938 was revolutionary for its time: eradicating oppressive child labor in industries like mining, manufacturing, and many other hazardous occupations.  However, it made a very specific exemption for agriculture in regards to everything from minimum wage to child labor.


80 years later, in 2018, those significant exceptions still prevail:

  • Children in agriculture may work starting at age 14, while the minimum age for employment in other industries is 16.
  • Children in agriculture may work starting at age 12 outside of school hours with parental consent: their hours unlimited and no minimum wage guaranteed;
  • In other industries, children are prohibited from working in the federally-designated Hazardous Occupations until they become an adult. However, Hazardous Occupations are open to minors in agriculture starting at age 16.  This includes operating dangerous equipment like a combine or auger conveyer, felling trees, handling explosives, or transporting ammonia.


Hazardous Occupations (HO’s) are even defined differently under agriculture vs. non-agriculture.  Non-agricultural HO’s were updated in 2010; agricultural HO’s still date back to 1970.  Non-agricultural workers are banned from power-driven machinery of all kinds except office machines, can’t work on ladders or scaffolds, can’t work in construction, etc.

Minors in the fields however, even those younger than 16, can climb on 20-foot ladders and operate select power-driven machines.  They can even harvest tobacco, although even moderately prolonged exposure can cause green tobacco sickness.

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Tar-stained hands of children harvesting tobacco leaves. Photo from The Nation: Why are Children Working in American Tobacco Fields? (Nov. 12, 2013)


This has serious ramifications for the farmworker population, in that children can feel coerced into working on farms just because they’re of “legal” working age.  Parents are also more willing to commit their kids to such dangerous work, believing it to be safe and good, since – hey, it’s legal, right?  Worst of all, as long as it’s not during school hours, the FLSA does not restrict total weekly hours, nor require overtime pay.  Children are not paid more than $4.25/hour, thanks to an out-of-date statutory minimum wage and piece-rate work.  This results in a lot of savings for agricultural employers, but a loss for farmworker children, who sacrifice their health and best years to the job for little reward.


Such obvious disparities should outrage Americans and translate into concrete legislative action. Unfortunately, the opposite has occurred.  In 2010, then-Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis proposed updating the agricultural HOs to equalize them with non-agricultural HO’s.  The agricultural lobby responded with such fury that the proposal was scrapped and hasn’t been revisited since.  Public commenters’ main concern was that the federal government was trying to change the rural way of life by telling farm owners how to raise their children – even though the new regulations had already addressed these concerns by exempting family-owned farms.

Unfortunately, much more is at stake here than farm owners’ freedom alone.  That’s why the government needs to create and enforce new laws to protect the lives of farmworker children, even as it weighs those considerations against farmers’ concerns about feeling overly regulated.  Otherwise, Americans will have to grapple with the fact that ours is a country where:

  • 12-year-olds are working full-time to help supplement their families’ income.
  • 10- and 11-year-olds are spending their summers in the hot sun harvesting the strawberries, blueberries, peaches, and other produce that end up on American tables.
  • Children younger than 16 are losing limbs, or lives, to hazardous farm work (more on that in our previous blog here.)

It is our confident hope that the United States of America can do better than this.



Learn more at:

Congressional Research Service:  The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) Child Labor Provisions

National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety:  Agricultural Child Labor Hazardous Occupations Orders Comparison of present rules with 2011 proposed revisions

AgriLIFE Extension:  Hazardous Occupations Order for Agriculture