Labor department backpedals on child labor regs governing farming

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division announced Feb. 1 it will “re-propose” the portion of its regulation on child labor in agriculture interpreting the “parental exemption” that drew fire from the U.S. farming community.

The department said decision to re-propose is in part a response to requests from the public and members of Congress that the agency get more feedback on this aspect of the rule.

A group of more than 150 U.S. representatives sent a letter to the department in December blasting the proposed changes that would’ve reduced the number of tasks young people are allowed to do on farms. (letter link opens .pdf)

“I doubt the bureaucrats pushing this rule have set foot on a family farm, let alone understand the unique challenges of running a family business,” said Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., who led the congressional charge.

Among the proposals the department backed away from, for now, are:

– No one under 16 would be allowed to work with animals when pain is being inflicted, such as branding, castrating;

– No one under 16 would be allowed to work on ladder over 6 feet high;

– No one under 16 would be allowed to work in a pen with an uncastrated boar, bull or horse over 6 months old.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the announcement means the labor department listened to farmers across the country.

The parental exemption allows children of any age who are employed by their parent, or a person standing in the place of a parent, to perform any job on a farm owned or operated by their parent.

The re-proposal process will seek comments as to how the department can comply with statutory requirements to protect children, while respecting rural traditions. The re-proposed portion of the rule is expected to be published for public comment by early summer.

Until the revised exemption is final, the Wage and Hour Division will continue to apply the parental exemption to situations in which the parent or person standing in the place of a parent is a part owner of the farm, a partner in a partnership or an officer of a corporation that owns the farm if the ownership interest in the partnership or corporation is substantial.

“We will continue to work closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ensure that our child labor in agriculture rule generally, and the parental exemption specifically, fully reflect input from rural communities,” said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis.

That means more work is needed, said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, and his farm group will “continue to work with the administration to address our concerns with the rule.”

“We have no desire at all to have young teenagers working in jobs that are inappropriate or entail too much risk,” Stallman said in a released statement. “But, laws and regulations need to be sensible and within reason — not prohibiting teenagers from performing simple, everyday farm functions like operating a battery-powered screwdriver.”

Likewise, the National Farmers Union also expressed its pleasure at the announcement.

NFU President Roger Johnson said it shows the administration “listened to the concerns of the agriculture community and determined that these rules would hinder the ability of young workers to learn about agriculture while doing little to make them safer.”

“Farming is a lifestyle that is passed down from generation to generation, so it is critical that farmers are able to teach their children how to perform the work safely and responsibly.”

The department’s child labor in agriculture statutory authority extends only to children employed in agriculture who are 15 years of age or younger.

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