Iowans welcome Labor Department retreat on farm youth work rules

The U.S. Department of Labor announced yesterday that it will not seek to regulate agricultural work done by children under age 16. Several members of Iowa's Congressional delegation welcomed the news. Their statements are after the jump, along with background on the proposed rules and the full statement from the Labor Department.

UPDATE: I've added Senator Tom Harkin's comments below. He was the only Iowan in Congress to express concern about the government walking away from "regulations that were, at their core, about protecting children."

U.S. Department of Labor press release of April 26:

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of Labor today issued the following statement regarding the withdrawal of a proposed rule dealing with children who work in agricultural vocations:

"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' - 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.

"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."

The Labor Department originally proposed the rule to reduce accidents on farms.

The Labor Department said it is withdrawing proposed rules that would ban children younger than 16 from using most power-driven farm equipment, including tractors. The rules also would prevent those younger than 18 from working in feed lots, grain bins and stockyards.

While labor officials said their goal was to reduce the fatality rate for child farm workers, the proposal had become a popular political target for Republicans who called it an impractical, heavy-handed regulation that ignored the reality of small farms. [...]

The surprise move comes just two months after the Labor Department modified the rule in a bid to satisfy opponents. The agency made it clear it would exempt children who worked on farms owned or operated by their parents, even if the ownership was part of a complex partnership or corporate agreement.

That didn't appease farm groups that complained it would upset traditions in which many children work on farms owned by uncles, grandparents and other relatives to reduce costs and learn how a farm operates. The Labor Department said Thursday it was responding to thousands of comments that expressed concern about the impact of the changes on small family-owned farms.

The American Farm Bureau Federation was one of many industry groups that opposed the proposed rule. That organization's president hailed yesterday's "victory for farm families." So did Iowa politicians from both parties.

Statement from Senator Chuck Grassley:

Senator Chuck Grassley released the following statement after learning that the Department of Labor would be withdrawing the entirety of its proposed regulations that would have put stringent restrictions on young people working on family farms.  Grassley, one of the only working family farmers in the U.S. Senate, has vigorously defended the opportunity for kids to work on family farms.  He has said that generations of Iowans have cut their teeth working on the farm, whether for their own family, or a neighbor's farm and that young people are a valuable part of farming operations.

"It's good the Labor Department rethought the ridiculous regulations it was going to stick on farmers and their families.  It would have been devastating to farm families across the country.  Much of rural America was built on families helping families, neighbors helping neighbors.  To even propose such regulations defies common sense, and shows a real lack of understanding as to how the family farm works.  I'm glad the Obama administration came to its senses."

Statement from Representative Bruce Braley (D, IA-01):

Washington, D.C. - Rep. Bruce Braley (IA-01) released the following statement after the US Department of Labor announced it was withdrawing a proposed regulation that would have made it more difficult for farmers and ranchers to hire youth to work in agriculture:

"The demise of the Obama administration's proposed rule to require children be a minimum age to work on farms is welcome news. A regulation prohibiting youths from working on farms would strike at the very core of agriculture across Iowa and the Midwest.  This is Iowa. Working on the family farm is part of growing up.  I know -- I remember many hot summer days I spent as a kid detassling corn in the fields. I'll keep working to ensure misguided regulations like this one don't see the light of day."

In December, Braley wrote to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis urging her to drop the proposed rule.

Statement from Representative Dave Loebsack (D, IA-02):

Washington, D.C. - Congressman Dave Loebsack today praised the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) for withdrawing a proposed rule dealing with youth who work in agriculture. Last week, Loebsack met with the DOL to urge them to review Iowans' concerns that part of the proposal would limit activities children could perform on family farms and the effect the updates could have on student education programs in rural areas.

"Iowa farmers have a long and proud tradition of feeding the world," said Loebsack. "After hearing from concerned family farmers from across Iowa and the nation, I am pleased the Department of Labor has taken this step to help protect Iowa's way of life. When I met with the Department of Labor, I stressed the importance of better cooperation and outreach to the agriculture community and raised concerns about this rule. I applaud their commitment to working in a cooperative way to make our farms safer for kids."

In addition to meeting with the DOL, Loebsack wrote to the Secretary of Labor to urge the Department to ensure Iowa farmers and families had the opportunity to be heard regarding these proposals and urged the Department to reconsider the provisions relating to the parental exemption for children helping on the farm, which had already been withdrawn prior to today.

Representative Leonard Boswell (D, IA-03) tweeted the good news yesterday, and his office later released this statement:

"I am pleased the Department of Labor stopped pursing the issue of limiting youth work on the family farm. Reasoned heads prevailed," Boswell said. "There are better, already existing educational resources through farm groups to educate and promote safety for young farm hands. I will work with those groups to keep farm workers of all ages safe."

Statement from Representative Steve King (R, IA-05):

King: Obama Administration Finally Caves on Youth Farm Labor

Washington, DC- Congressman Steve King (R-IA) released the following statement today after the Department of Labor announced that it will withdraw its proposed rule to prohibit young people from working on family farms and participating in agriculture education programs including Future Farmers of America and 4-H.

"Once again President Obama's overreaching policies have outraged the American people," said King. "I'm happy to see the backlash surrounding this rule has prompted the Department of Labor to withdraw the proposed rule. The Department of Agriculture collaborated with the Department of Labor on this direct assault of American family farms. Family farms are the core of American culture, and for centuries they have played a large role in instilling a strong work ethic in young people. I know because I raised my three sons in rural Iowa and taught them the value of hard work."

"I'm pleased to have had the support of many farm families as I've worked to oppose this rule in order to ensure that young people will still have the same opportunities.  This policy was not only unnecessary, it threatened the very way of life that I and so many others hold dear. When will President Obama realize that his out of touch policies do not reflect the values of the American people? His actions continue to show that he is disconnected with the people in the heartland of this great country."

UPDATE: Senator Tom Harkin's press release of April 27:

Harkin Statement on Withdrawal of Labor Department's Child Labor Farm Rule

WASHINGTON, D.C.- Today, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) released the following statement after learning that the Department of Labor has withdrawn its proposed legislation to protect children on working farms. Senator Harkin is a former chairman, and current high ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

"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," said Harkin.  "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."

LATE UPDATE: From an op-ed column by historian Marjorie Elizabeth Wood in the New York Times on May 8:

Of course, the family farm was never the target of reform legislation, though it was used rhetorically by the opponents of reform. In the 1920s, as now, reformers were explicit that their legislative efforts would not affect children working on family farms or on the farms of relatives acting in parental roles. But by shifting the debate to red herrings - the supposed downfall of the private farm, and correspondingly of parental authority and rural ways of life - the opposition managed, as it has again now, to distract us from the real problem of exploitative child labor on farms.

Before the bugaboo of prohibiting chores on the family farm was invented by business interests in the 1920s, protecting children from all forms of labor exploitation was a moral issue that united the nation. Reformers' victories rested on the widespread conviction that our nation would never be truly free until all forms of child labor were abolished from our midst. By the time New Deal legislation was passed, however, child labor was defined much more narrowly. The reformers' goal of protecting children from every type of labor exploitation has been all but forgotten.

The recent proposal by the Department of Labor was intended to protect poor migrant child workers who do seasonal farm work for "Big Agriculture." They sorely need it. According to Human Rights Watch, child farm workers are at greater risk of pesticide poisoning, serious injury, heat illness, and death than any other youth workers in America.

The hullabaloo revealed that the same commercial forces that thwarted the Child Labor Amendment in the 1920s continue to stymie reform today. In an age when Big Agriculture still benefits from the laxity of our child labor laws, the reformers' legacy is one we would do well to reclaim.

LATER UPDATE: From an editorial by Zama Coursen-Neff, deputy director of the children's rights division of Human Rights Watch:

Agriculture is the most dangerous work open to children in the United States, where 12- to 16-year-olds-and on small farms children of any age-can be hired. According to government figures, 16 children under 16 were fatally injured at work in 2010; 12 of them worked on farms. Thousands more are injured each year. 

I've interviewed dozens of youths who worked as children across the country. They describe operating heavy machinery, including tractors; falling from ladders; being exposed to pesticides and suffering symptoms of poisoning; working in extreme heat to the point of dehydration; and suffering from nicotine poisoning (aka green tobacco sickness) from picking tobacco. Wyatt Whitebread, 14, was employed in Illinois when he suffocated in a grain silo in 2010.

 Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the US Department of Labor must determine what jobs are so hazardous they are off limits for children under 16 paid to work on farms (they don't apply when the business is owned or operated by their parents). Current rules, drafted decades ago, prohibit operating certain equipment, working with some animals, working from a ladder over 20 feet high, and applying the most toxic chemicals. The new restrictions, based on expert research from farm safety and health experts, would also ban additional heavy machinery, working in silos and grain storage facilities, handling all pesticides, and working in the production of tobacco, among other things. These updates make sense, based on new equipment and a better understanding of children's vulnerabilities, especially to pesticides.

Yet when the Labor Department introduced the proposed rules in September, several members of Congress, including Senators John Thune and Jerry Moran and Representative Tom Latham, claimed they would hurt family farms and agricultural training, and introduced bills to block the new rules. The pressure on the department-and the misinformation-was intense. The claims were just wrong: the proposed rules didn't apply to family-owned or - operated farms and in any case, rural communities don't depend on children being able to do jobs likely to injure and kill them. Children could still work on farms--they just couldn't perform the most dangerous tasks. Job training shouldn't require children to risk their health and their lives.

Child labor laws are already far more lax in agriculture than in any other sector. US law allows 16 and 17-year-olds to work on farms under hazardous conditions, while the minimum age elsewhere is 18. Kids under 14 can't work at all, and those under 16 can work only three hours a day when school is in session. But on any farm, children can work at age 12, with no hourly limits outside of school hours. On a small farm kids of any age can work legally. This dangerous double standard between agriculture and other sectors is also discriminatory: 85 percent of farmworkers are Hispanic, and this group alone faces uniquely lower safety standards.

Click here to read Human Rights Watch's lengthy 2010 report "Fields of Peril: Child Labor in US Agriculture."  

Login or Join to comment and post.