Norma Flores López was 12 when she began working 10- to 12-hour days, every day of the week.
Because that grueling work occurred on a farm, it was allowed. Kids in the U.S. can take on unlimited hours of agricultural labor so long as they don’t miss school and have a parent’s permission.
López told the U.S. House Education and Labor Workforce Protections Subcommittee during a remote hearing on child agricultural labor Wednesday that her parents, who also worked with her on farms, had done that kind of labor when they were young kids, too.
“I was expected to keep up with adults and often pushed myself beyond my limits while performing dangerous and back-breaking work with sharp tools in 100-degree weather,” an adult López, now a committee chair for the Child Labor Coalition, testified during the hearing.
“Necessities such as bathrooms and clean drinking water were not always guaranteed, and neither was safety training or equipment,” she said. “These were the everyday dangers considered to be inherent to the industry.”
“‘My parents, who only had an elementary school education and spoke no English, did not have the ability to help me, and resources were not always available.’”
— Norma Flores López was 12 when she began working 10- to 12-hour days
Rep. Alma Adams, a North Carolina Democrat and the chairwoman of the Labor Workforce Protections Subcommittee, is a co-sponsor of that bill. She said during Wednesday’s hearing that the country had “turned its back on child farmworkers.”
“As lawmakers, we have a responsibility to protect all child workers — no matter where they live — and ensure each of them has the opportunity to achieve their dreams,” Adams said.
Still, Republicans on the panel said there are numerous benefits to kids starting out their working years on a farm, stressing that he believes employers want to keep their younger workers safe.
Rep. Fred Keller, a Republican from Pennsylvania and the subcommittee’s ranking member, said more pressing risks to children include Democrats’ immigration policies, high inflation and increased government spending.
“As a young child, I worked on a farm,” Keller said, adding, “Farmers don’t want people hurt.”
Kristi Boswell, an agricultural policy counsel at the Alston & Bird law firm and a former senior adviser to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in the Trump administration, testified that she, too, had worked on a farm as a child.
“We can all agree it is critically important to ensure anyone working in agriculture is safe,” Boswell said. “Farmers are committed to offering jobs that are skill-level appropriate, while still giving young people invaluable hands-on experience.”
Boswell was critical that the CARE Act as written would remove parental discretion and create an “arbitrary age threshold” for when children can perform certain jobs without considering the child’s experience and maturity level.
But López said the work she did wasn’t good for her, nor could it be considered vocational training. It was something her family took part in because they were poor.
“My parents, who only had an elementary school education and spoke no English, did not have the ability to help me, and resources were not always available,” López said.
“Through tremendous sacrifice from my family, I graduated high school and eventually earned my master’s degree,” she added. “However, the majority of farmworker youth do not even graduate high school; they drop out at a rate of four times the national average. I am not alone.”