Contentious child labor rule will not go forward
A revamping of the rules that govern the safety of young people working on farms has been dropped by the U.S. Department of Labor after an outcry from farmers and their organizations.
There were 40,000 written comments submitted on the rule, mostly from ag groups and farmers who opposed them.
The department issued a statement on Thursday (April 26) noting that 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 the withdrawal of the proposed rule dealing with children under the age of 16 who work in agricultural vocations," the statement continued.
The Department said the decision to withdraw the 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.
Officials made it clear in their announcement that this regulation "will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration."
Instead, the Labor Department said it would work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and with rural stakeholders - specifically naming the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union, FFA and 4-H - to develop an educational program to reduce accidents to young workers and promote safer agricultural working practices.
Farm groups were quick to applaud the decision.
The move "is the right decision for our nation's family-based agriculture system," said American Farm Bureau president Bob Stallman.
In a statement, Stallman expressed appreciation for the administration's decision and efforts by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to listen to farmers, ranchers and other rural Americans.
Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation spokesman Casey Langan said the decision was great news for farm families. "If these unworkable rules had been implemented, they would have drastically changed the face of the Wisconsin family farm."
The thousands of farmers and parents who took the time to contact members of Congress and the Department of Labor "can claim victory" he added, saying that the shelving of the rules is a victory for common sense.
From the time that the department unveiled the rules, said Langan, Farm Bureau has supported the rights of parents to have discretion when it comes to the capabilities and limitations of their child's activities on farms.
RULES WOULD HAVE DENIED REAL WORLD EXPERIENCE
"This proposal would have only denied invaluable real world experiences for youth interested in agriculture, and placed one more barrier to a labor-intensive industry that struggles to attract a trained workforce."
Langan said Farm Bureau shared the concerns of the Wisconsin FFA Foundation that had these rules gone forward, they could have effectively eliminated the 'supervised agricultural experiences' (SAE) that thousands of Wisconsin youth participate in annually through FFA projects, he added.
Calling the proposed child labor rule contentious, Jerry Kozak, president of the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) said he was encouraged by the department's "recognition that the path it was on with this proposal was an affront to millions of family members on farms and ranches across America.
"Many of them had objected to what the Labor Department was planning to do, and they voiced their concerns to the DOL, as well as to Congress. The withdrawal of the proposal is a victory for common sense," he added.
The proposed child labor rule would have changed the definition of the 'parental exemption,' changed the student learner exemption, and significantly redefined what practices would be acceptable for youth under the age of 16 to participate in.
These changes drew objections from NMPF, along with all the other major agricultural organizations, because of the significant impact the change would have had on rural communities and families, Kozak said.
The proposed rules would have prevented workers under the age of 16 from participating in certain agricultural work, including operating tractors and other machinery, working at elevations greater than six feet, and helping brand, breed, or vaccinate animals.
Late last week Wisconsin Senator Herb Kohl joined those praising the department's decision to drop the proposed rule.
Last December, 30 Senators from both parties, including Kohl, signed a letter urging labor officials to drop these requirements, saying they "would have limited opportunities for young people to participate in training and educational programs and negatively impacted agricultural employment in Wisconsin."
"I have heard from farmers, students, teachers, and agricultural workers across Wisconsin about their concerns with these new rules," Kohl said. "I'm glad the Department of Labor has heard our concerns, and has done the right thing by our family farmers and youth."
RULES WOULD HAVE CREATED FARM FAMILY BURDEN
Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) also praised the decision. He said he had heard from farmers in western Wisconsin objecting to provisions that would have limited the ability of children to move, clean, or repair a tractor, prohibited children from riding on a tractor as a passenger or helper, prohibited youth 16 and under from operating milking equipment and generally prohibited them from working with or around animals.
"The proposed labor rule would only have created an unnecessary burden on our family farmers. I'm pleased that the Department of Labor has withdrawn the rule and instead made their focus on education and the promotion of safe farm practices, as I suggested in the letters I sent to them.
"Our family farmers have a unique way of life. We've got to work with them to promote best practices and safe working environments."
Cooperative Network, which represents farmer cooperatives in Wisconsin and Minnesota, played an active role in opposing the department's rule proposal.
"This rule could have drastically affected the family farm as we know it," said Bill Oemichen, president and chief operating officer of Cooperative Network. "This ill-conceived rule would have prevented the next generation of cooperative leaders from acquiring key skills to succeed in agriculture. It also would have prohibited urban kids from working on farms and acquiring a solid work ethic and knowledge about where their food comes from."
Danny Murphy, a Mississippi soybean farmer who is first vice president of the American Soybean Association, said he was happy to see the administration "make a practical and much needed course correction on this issue" adding that the rules would have significantly hindered the ability of youth to work on family farms and gain agricultural experience.
"Thursday's reversal by the Department of Labor of its onerous proposed child labor regulations is a victory for soybean farmers and farm families across the country," Murphy said.
"I learned how to farm from my father, who learned from his father, and with that knowledge, we've kept our farm in the family since 1944. The strength of our industry is built on that understanding of the land, passed down from grandparents to parents to children. The families that comprise the soybean industry know that on-farm experience is the best teacher and part of the rural tradition and work ethic that has made our country's farm economy strong.
Nobody values on-farm safety more than farmers, and each of us strives daily to ensure that safety remains our top priority. ASA supports efforts to ensure that children are kept out of potentially hazardous situations on the farm, so we are pleased to hear of the administration's pledge to work with our farm leadership organizations to develop farm safety programs, and we look forward to working with our public and private partners to ensure that these programs are practical and effective," Murphy added.