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DOL nixes proposed child farm labor rule

By Larry Dreiling

In what is being hailed by many farm state members of Congress as well as farm lobby groups, the U.S. Department of Labor April 26 issued a statement withdrawing a proposed rule dealing with children.

The statement read: "The Obama administration is firmly committed to promoting family farmers and respecting the rural way of life, especially the role that parents and other family members play in passing those traditions down through the generations. The Obama administration is also deeply committed to listening and responding to what Americans across the country have to say about proposed rules and regulations.

"As a result, the Department of Labor is announcing today the withdrawal of the proposed rule dealing with children under the age of 16 who work in agricultural vocations."

The decision to withdraw this rule, including provisions to define the "parental exemption," the statement continued, was made in response to thousands of comments expressing concerns about the effect of the proposed rules on small family-owned farms.

"To be clear, this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration," the statement concluded. "Instead, the Departments of Labor and Agriculture will work with rural stakeholders--such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union, the Future Farmers of America, and 4-H--to develop an educational program to reduce accidents to young workers and promote safer agricultural working practices."

Among those hailing the DOL's decision to back off on the proposal was Sen. Jerry Moran, R-KS.

"American farmers and ranchers received some unexpected and welcome news this evening: The Department of Labor finally listened to them and withdrew its proposed youth farm labor rule, which would have fundamentally altered the future of agriculture in our country," Moran said in a conference call with agricultural journalists April 27. "If the department had moved forward with regulating the relationship between parents and children on their own farm, a dangerous precedent would have been set; virtually nothing would be off limits when it comes to government intrusion into our lives.

"For generations, the contributions of young people have helped family farm and ranch operations survive and prosper. If this proposal had gone into effect, not only would the shrinking rural workforce have been further reduced, and our nation's youth deprived of valuable career training opportunities, but a way of life would have begun to disappear. This is a tremendous victory for farmers and ranchers across the country."

Last year, DOL Secretary Hilda Solis proposed rules that would restrict family farm operations by prohibiting youth under the age of 16 from participating in common practices on the farm and ranch.

The proposal covered vaccinating and hoof trimming all livestock, and handling most animals more than 6 months old, operating farm machinery over 20 PTO horsepower, completing tasks at elevations over 6 feet high, and working at stockyards and grain and feed facilities.

Moran complained the proposal would limit participation in 4-H and FFA activities and restrict their youth farm safety classes.

"The language of the proposed rule is so specific it would even ban youth from operating a battery-powered screwdriver or a pressurized garden hose," Moran said.

In December of last year, Solis was sent a letter signed by 30 senators on both sides of the aisle requesting that the proposed rule be withdrawn. Moran said he developed a website, keepfamiliesfarming.com, to assist in gathering public comment and, together with Sen. Ben Nelson, D-NE, managed to get DOL to extend the comment period on the proposal. Through the website, Moran and Nelson gathered over 8,000 comments that were forwarded onto the department.

In March, Moran and Sen. John Thune, R-SD, introduced legislation, the Preserving America's Family Farm Act, to prevent DOL from enacting its plan. Republicans Denny Rehberg of Montana, Tom Latham of Iowa and Dan Boren of Oklahoma introduced similar legislation in the House.

Other positive reaction

from Capitol Hill

Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman Debbie Stabenow of Michigan hailed the decision, saying, "I am glad the Department of Labor heard my concerns and the concerns of so many families in Michigan and decided to re-evaluate and ultimately withdraw this rule. There must be strong safeguards to protect children from dangerous situations, but there needs to be an understanding that many children in rural communities learn about safety by helping their family on the farm."

Her Republican counterpart, Ranking Minority Member Pat Roberts of Kansas, said, "I am pleased the administration has listened to reason and has withdrawn a highly criticized proposed rule that would have fundamentally altered the rural way of life in America for generations to come."

"Under the leadership of Kansas' Sen. Jerry Moran, farm country united against this short-sided proposal and once again commonsense prevails. The administration should apply these lessons to all of its burdensome regulations."

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas of Oklahoma said, "This proposed rule created great angst in the countryside about the impact it would have had on the future of the family farm. It was a concern that agricultural producers kept raising during our farm bill field hearings.

"The Obama administration has proposed numerous rules that affect family farmers and ranchers without fully knowing the impact of their actions. I hope this will serve as a lesson to the administration that they should seek input from the agriculture sector before continuing to move forward with unworkable regulations.

"I also commend the entire agriculture community, including the thousands of farmers and ranchers, who voiced strong opposition to this rule. This victory is due, in no small part, because the entire agriculture community worked together. It is a reminder of what we can achieve when we are united by a common goal."

His Democratic counterpart, Ranking Minority Member Collin Peterson of Minnesota, said: "This proposed rule didn't make a lot of sense and seemed to be put together by people who don't understand agriculture. The decision to withdraw it was the right one, after thousands of farm families responded with concerns, after several Democrats and I signed on to a bill to block it, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack worked to ensure that farmers' voices were heard."

Not every member of Congress seemed happy about withdrawal of the proposed rule. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-IA, and a former chairman of the Senate ag body, said, "Although the child labor rule has been withdrawn, we cannot walk away from our obligation to protect vulnerable workers, especially children. The regulations have not been updated in 40 years, and we have learned a lot about farm safety since then.

"I am disappointed that the administration chose to walk away from regulations that were, at their core, about protecting children and which could have been revised to correct some of the initial proposals that generated the most concern. I know from my discussions with farmers throughout Iowa that we can both protect children and ensure the success of family farms and I will continue to work to protect both in our state."

Reaction from farm groups ran from pleased to tepid.

Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, called the withdrawal "the right decision for our nation's family-based agriculture system.

"This victory for farm families is due to the thousands of farmers and ranchers who sent comments to the Labor Department opposing the rules and continued to voice their concerns with members of Congress. This announcement shows the strength of American agriculture and grassroots action.

"Farm Bureau will continue working to ensure that the parental exemptions that remain important to agriculture will be protected, and we will continue our work to help educate families about the importance of farm safety. We also look forward to working with the Departments of Agriculture and Labor and rural stakeholders to develop a program to promote safer agricultural working practices."

National Cattlemen's Beef Association President J.D. Alexander commended the administration's action and said farmers and ranchers made their voices heard on the proposed rule, which could have restricted, and in some instances totally prevented, America's youth from working on farms and ranches.

"This is a victory for farm and ranch families throughout the country. This ridiculous rule would have prevented the next generation of farmers and ranchers from acquiring skills and passion for this very noble profession. It also would have restricted urban kids from working on farms and acquiring a solid work ethic and enthusiasm for this very diverse industry," said Alexander, a Pilger, Neb., producer.

"We absolutely have to have a sensible regulatory environment in Washington, D.C. We should not have to worry about negligent rules being promulgated by out-of-touch regulatory agencies. We encourage the administration to venture off the city sidewalks and learn more about where their food comes from."

National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said, "NFU is glad to see the DOL and U.S. Department of Agriculture's continued commitment to the safety of children, particularly on farms, which can be dangerous work environments.

"Farm safety is important to everyone involved in agriculture. In a recent report issued by USDA, workers under age 20 experienced 3,191 nonfatal injuries on farms in 2009, the latest year for which figures are available, down 36 percent from 4,964 injuries in 2006. While this is a downward trend, the reality is that even one on-farm injury is one too many.

"While NFU supported elements of the proposed rule, education is a positive approach to this issue and we are committed to working with the DOL and USDA to develop educational programs to reduce accidents to young workers and promote safer agricultural working practices."

One group that was upset about the DOL decision was the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, which calls itself a national federation of nonprofit and public agencies that provide training and employment services to migrant and seasonal farmworkers.

"We are profoundly disappointed the administration will not be pursuing the proposed protections for children employed in agriculture," David Strauss, AFOP's executive director, said. "These were common sense protections that would have saved many children's lives."

The proposed rules, Strauss' statement said, were opposed by the agribusiness community with large sums of lobbying money to members of Congress. Strauss noted a story in The Republic Report that National Milk Producers Federation spent $130,502 lobbying Congress against the child safety rules in the first three months of this year.

"Farm work for many children is not a vocation," said Norma Flores Lopez, director of the Children in the Fields Campaign at AFOP. "For the children of farmworkers, whose lives will continue to be put in jeopardy to harvest America's food, this is not an educational experience to prepare them to own their own farm one day. They are left exposed and unprotected through this move to withdraw the safety rules for children employed in agriculture."

Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117, or by email at ldreiling@aol.com.

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