For many rural and suburban youth, working on a farm is their first paid employment.

Attorney Michael Harrington, Ford Harrison Law, said farms hiring teen workers should be aware of three main considerations that apply to employing minors. “Do you need certain working papers they get typically from their school?” he asked. “What time of day and what days can you have them working, and how often can they work?” Other factors, which vary by state, depend on age, whether school is in session and what kind of work teens are allowed to do. Harrington noted federal restrictions on certain activities, and that some states go beyond federal law to prohibit certain activities.

He said as a general rule, employers should consider if they’re interfering with the child’s education in any way (should they be in school instead of working?), if they’re working too late the day prior to school or if they’re working with dangerous equipment.

“Federal law in all cases of employment sets the floor,” said Harrington. “No state can allow what federal law prohibits.” Federal law states that those 18 and older can do any job in agriculture. Youth ages 14 to 15 can work in agriculture but only in non-hazardous jobs. Those ages 12 to 13 can work only if a parent has given written permission and only in non-hazardous jobs. It’s permissible for 12- to 13-year-olds to work on a farm where a parent is working.

Proof of age is an important factor with teen employment. Because certain rules are applied to people under 20, federal law requires employers to maintain records of dates of birth for all minors. “This is probably something you would satisfy from one of your other obligations, such as an I-9 form,” he said. “A passport, a driver’s license, will identify the person’s age.”

If those items are not available, a birth certificate can be used for recording age. “That’s important not only in federal law, but it’s going to be important under state laws depending on the age of the employee,” said Harrington. “You may or may not be able to use those in certain ways, so be very clear about the age of employees so you can properly use them as part of your workforce.”

Federal limits for work time allowed focuses on whether school is in or out of session. There are generally no restrictions for teens 16 and older, but if they’re younger than 16 and school is in session, only three hours per day can be spent working (for a total of 18 hours per week). When school is not in session (closed for the calendar week), those who are 16 and older can work eight hours per day up to 40 hours per week.

Most states have restrictions on night work, the total number of hours an individual can work during the day and restrictions on the time of day they can work. “They don’t want children working too late at night when they should be getting rest for school the next day,” said Harrington. “Dates usually fluctuate between Memorial Day and Labor Day.”

Federal law plays a significant role in identifying what types of jobs are considered presumptively hazardous such that a minor under 16 is not allowed to work them. However, there are exceptions if the parents own the farm or if the job is in connection with vocational education training programs.

Several occupations deemed “hazardous” for teens are identified by the Department of Labor (DOL). According to the DOL, youth under 16 may not operate a tractor with more than 20 PTO horsepower, and may not connect or disconnect implements to such a tractor. They may not be involved with the operation, including stopping/starting, adjusting or any physical contact with machinery such as a hay mower, power post-hole digger, power post driver or non-walking rotary tiller. Youth under 16 may not operate any power-driven saws or chainsaws.

Additional restrictions for youth under 16 include no work from a ladder or scaffold taller than 20 feet for any purpose (such as painting, pruning or picking fruit). Youth under 16 are not allowed to work inside a fruit or grain storage structure designed to retain an oxygen-deficient atmosphere, an upright silo within two weeks after silage has been added or when a top unloading device is in operating position, a manure pit or packing a horizontal silo. Operating an elevator or driving automobiles or trucks, even on the property, are not permitted for individuals under 16.

Some states allow for some deviation in rate of pay, as does federal law. “If you’re going to pay less than minimum wage, double check to see if that is permitted by your state law,” Harrington said. “Federal law does allow less than minimum wage for individuals under age 20, but only for the first 90 days of their employment.” Employers who deviate from paying minimum wage should check to be sure it’s allowed by the state and track the time period.

If a minor lives in one state and works in different state, Harrington said what counts is where the work is performed. In some cases, state or local taxes may be a factor to consider. For farms that straddle two states, Harrington advised looking at the rules for both states and complying with the most conservative.

“Hiring minor employees is great and some are very enthusiastic about having their first job,” said Harrington. “As an employer, think in terms of scheduling those employees in a way that doesn’t violate any state rules or that they don’t engage in activities they are not permitted to – mostly active machinery.”

by Sally Colby