The Department of Labor announced April 26 it was withdrawing a proposal to regulate the work youth can perform on farms and related agriculture businesses in response to strong opposition from legislators and the agriculture community.
The move prompted advocates for child laborers to criticize the Obama administration for abandoning young farm workers.
Lawmakers who opposed the rule, focusing on its potential impact on family farms and agriculture education, said they would fight any future efforts by the White House to enact similar measures.
“The decision to withdraw this rule--including provisions to define the 'parental exemption'--was made in response to thousands of comments expressing concerns about the effect of the proposed rules on small family-owned farms,” the unattributed statement said. “To be clear, this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration.”
The withdrawal statement contrasts starkly with Labor Secretary Hilda Solis's forward to the 2012 Blueprint for Protecting Children in Agriculture, published in April by the National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety, in which she backed the proposed rule.
“The department is not seeking to disrupt the proud intergenerational tradition of passing the agrarian work ethic down from one generation to the next,” Solis wrote. “Instead, we are proposing some reasonable parameters on especially dangerous tasks that data show have killed or injured a disproportionate number of young workers.”
The proposed rule from the DOL's Wage and Hour Division, Child Labor Regulations, Orders and Statements of Interpretation; Child Labor Violations--Civil Money Penalties, was published Sept. 2 in the Federal Register (76 Fed. Reg. 54,836).
DOL accepted public comments through Dec. 1, and more than 18,000 responses were submitted (41 OSHR 1047, 12/8/11).
Prompting the most opposition were provisions dealing with children working on farms owned or operated by their families. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act exempts the children of farm owners from workplace regulations. However, the DOL proposed tightening the definition of who qualified for the exemption. For example, a teenager who commuted daily from home to work on a grandparent's farm or ranch may not qualify for the family farm exemption. However, if the child lived on the relative's farm for at least three months, the child would qualify for the exemption.
Also generating opposition were proposed changes to an education exemption for students working on farms as part of school program.
The sections impacting youths paid to work on farms, such as migrant children, prompted comparatively little opposition.
On Feb. 1, the day before a House of Representatives subcommittee was to hold a hearing on the proposed rule, the DOL announced it would withdraw the family farm-related provisions and continue with the rest of the proposed rule (42 OSHR 104, 2/2/12).
The reversal did not quell opposition from farm state lawmakers of both parties. Bills were introduced in the House and Senate during March to prevent the proposed rule, if approved, from being enforced (42 OSHR 294, 3/29/12).
Among the opponents of the proposal is Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), who chairs the House Appropriation Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education.
In statement issued April 26, Rehberg said he still wants to prevent funding of the cancelled regulation.
“Dealing with the Obama administration is a bit like driving a tractor with a flat tire, you can't take your hands off the wheel for a second or you'll veer left and wind up in the ditch,” Rehberg said. “I'm going to keep both hands on the wheel … . That means including language in my appropriations bill to make sure the president keeps his word.”
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who sponsored the Senate bill challenging the measure, declared in an April 26 release that he would “continue working to ensure this overreaching proposal is completely and permanently put to rest.”
Sen. John Tester (D-Mont.), who faces a reelection challenge from Rehberg, praised the withdrawal. “[O]ur farmers learn the values of responsible, safe work at a early age. I appreciate the secretary of labor listening to my concerns and those of hard-working Montana farmers and dropping these rules so we can continue our way of life and keep feeding America.”
Among the few lawmakers questioning the decision was Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, which oversees DOL.
“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,” Harkin said in an April 27 statement.
The withdrawal took the proposed rule's advocates by surprise.
“I feel sucker punched,” Celeste Monforton, a research professor at George Washington University's School of Public Health and Health Services, told BNA April 27.
Monforton said DOL should have continued the rulemaking process.
“When you get push-back, you have a public hearing. You have all parties air their views,” she said. Those hearings could have led to a consensus about activities too dangerous for hired children to perform.
Norma Flores Lopez, director of the Children in the Fields Campaign at Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, focused on youth paid to work on farms.
“With the growing season starting, there are going to be injuries and possibly deaths that could have been prevented if the rule had been implemented,” Lopez told BNA April 27.
Lopez hopes DOL's promised safety education outreach to farm organizations includes working with children paid to labor on farms.
Amy Liebman, director of occupational and environmental health for the Migrant Clinicians Network, said the administration still must address why children hired to work on farms do not have the same safety protection as youth in other jobs.
“This is a real disservice to the migrant child,” Liebman told BNA April 27. “For any child who is employed [in agriculture], they are basically being neglected by this process.”
Sammy Almashat, a researcher with Public Citizen's Health Research Group, said in an April 27 written statement the Obama administration continually sought to undercut the measure.
“The proposed rules already were delayed by the White House for nine months before it finally permitted their release last August” Almashat said, referring to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs review.
And when the administration announced the cancellation, it referred to the thousands of comments about the effect of the proposed rule on family farms, “despite the fact that family farms were explicitly exempted,” Almashat said. “The White House not only caved to industry pressure, but also parrotted its false argument as the reason for the rules' withdrawal.”
By Bruce Rolfsen
The proposed rule is available at http://webapps.dol.gov/federalregister/PdfDisplay.aspx?DocId=25286.
The 2012 Blueprint for Protecting Children in Agriculture is available at http://www.marshfieldclinic.org/proxy/MCRF-Centers-NFMC-NCCRAHS-2012_Blueprint_for_Child_Ag_Inj_Prev.1.pdf.