Child labor is a priority for the Department of Labor, and the penalties can be severe. Don’t let family traditions and your good intentions create unintended consequences.
By Anthony P. Raimondo, attorney
One of the great strengths of the dairy industry is the tradition of family farms. When children grow up on the farm, involvement in farming activities can become a part of growing up. For the children of farmers, experiences like driving a tractor for the first time are milestones of the journey from child to adult.
But for some farming families, these experience can be a nightmare. One family in California allowed their teenage son to drive a tractor for the first time under the supervision of his father and an adult sibling. Unfortunately, he lost control, had an accident, and was injured. Fortunately, his injuries were not severe and he recovered.
This farming family bought itself a whole separate set of troubles. After the accident, it received a visit from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). When the DOL learned of the accident, the agency began to treat the young man driving the tractor as a child labor violation. The problem is that there are very strict restrictions on minors operating equipment like tractors, forklifts and similar items.
Under child labor laws, there are exemptions that are applicable when children work for their parents. The problem is that, like many families, they have organized their business as a corporation to protect their assets from the liabilities of the business. But there are a variety of consequences that come with organizing the business as a corporation. Corporations are "persons" in their own right under the law, and, generally, when the minor works for a corporation he or she is not working for the parent, and the exemption does not apply. There are some exceptions based upon how the ownership of the corporation is set up, but the DOL’s starting point is that a corporation cannot use the parent-child exemption to avoid compliance with child labor laws.
All farming businesses should be familiar with child labor laws, which limit the number of hours that minors work and restrict their ability to operate equipment. If the business is organized as an entity other than a sole proprietorship owned by the minor’s parents, then the family should make sure it understands the child labor rules before allowing any minors to operate any equipment, or to work full time or more.
Other child labor cases have arisen when farming families offer employment to the children of family friends, or to help employee families by offering employment to the children of employees, especially in the summer months. Child labor is a priority for the DOL, and the penalties can be severe. One possible penalty is a "hot goods" action, where the agency can obtain a court order stopping the product wherever it may be in the chain of commerce and prohibiting it from being bought, sold, or shipped. Because child labor is a priority for the DOL, farming families should be careful that their family traditions and their good intentions do not create unintended consequences.
The goal of this article is to provide employers with current labor and employment law information. The contents should not be interpreted or construed as legal advice or opinion. For individual responses to questions or concerns regarding any given situation, the reader should consult with Anthony Raimondo at McCormick Barstow LLP in Fresno, at (559) 433-1300.