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Labor Department drops proposed farm labor rules

Posted on Wednesday, May 2, 2012 at 7:50 am

By Emily Snodgrass
Bowling Green Times

As the school year draws to a close, youth in Pike County look forward to earning extra cash at summer jobs on area farms, working on a hay crew, spraying weeds, or sorting cattle.  It appears that Pike County youth can continue to take on such jobs, for now.
If the Department of Labor (DOL) had decided to pass proposed new rules, such activities might have become illegal. They were poised to put the finishing touches on a new rule banning children under the age of 18 from working in the storing, marketing, or transporting of farm product raw materials. Additionally, youth under 18 could no longer work in grain elevators, feed lots, stockyards, or livestock auctions.
The news broke late last Thursday that the Labor Department decided to drop the proposed changes.
Senator Claire McCaskill, along with  other senators representing rural states, successfully forced the Labor Department to withdraw the proposed rules that would have affected the ability of young adults to work on family farms.
The discussion of the proposed changes has been in the works for some time now.
“It took longer than it should have, but I’m glad to see the bipartisan work to instill some com-mon sense has finally paid off, and Missouri farm families will have one less thing to worry about. Federal agencies in Washington shouldn’t be deciding whether and how our kids and grandkids can work on their family farms and ranches where the values of hard work and responsibility are learned every day,” McCaskill stated.
Senator Roy Blunt said the burdensome regulations would not only hurt job creators, but would prevent the next generation of agriculture leaders from learning critical skills.
“I’m glad the Obama Administration finally heeded our calls and backed down from this ridiculous government overreach. Having grown up working on farms, I understand just how absurd this rule is for our nation’s agriculture industry,” Blunt said last Friday.
Missouri’s law regarding child farm labor is currently tougher than the federal law.
The revised state statute currently prohibits children under the age of 16 from being employed or permitted to work in  “any occupation or place of employment dangerous to the life, limb, or health.”
The new regulation proposed in August 2011 by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis would have also revoked the government’s approval of safety training and certification taught by organizations such as FFA and 4-H, replacing them instead with a 90-hour federal government training course, according to Representative Jay Houghton.
“This was a bad idea. It would do nothing but hurt our family farms,” stated Houghton of the DOL’s proposed plans.
The fact that this would have been a federal rule versus a law made its enforceability open to interpretation.
Houghton weighed in strongly on the matter.
“This is a prime example of big government gone wrong. Instead of them working for us, they’re running around working against us and trying to create income for themselves.  These different departments all make rules – and bypass the legislature,” he said.
Houghton reported that the DOL has grown 30 to 40 percent in the last three years.
The new rule would have devastated rural America, Houghton feared, including Amish communities.
“Growing up on the farm, children learn a tremendous amount of responsibility,” he noted.
Houghton said if the rule had passed, parents could have received citations for violations.
“It would have kept kids from driving tractors and working with livestock,” he said.
Houghton explained that there had been a concurrent resolution going around the House of Representatives trying to send a message to the federal government that this rule was a bad idea.
“To me, this is a prime example of  a Washington D.C. bureaucrat who does not understand how rural America operates and works.  They’re trying to push their philosophy on family farmers.  They don’t know how things work out here.”
Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst weighed in that the decision to withdraw the proposal was welcome news.
“It defied common sense for DOL to propose restricting young people from working on farms, learning skills and developing a good work ethic,” Hurst said.
Additionally, Governor Jay Nixon shared that he was pleased to hear of the DOL’s change of heart.
“The withdrawal of these rules restores common sense for farm families across Missouri.  Baling hay and doing chores are rites of passage for many young people on farms here in the heartland.  Helping on the farm is how young people learn responsibility, dependability and the value of hard work,” Nixon stated.
Senator Brian Munzlinger alleviated farmers’ fears,  saying that any changes to the law would be determined by the Missouri legislature, not by the federal government.
“We make the laws around here,” Munzlinger said.
Missouri law currently has no exemptions for agriculture. He said that with parent’s knowledge and consent, children will be able to keep performing the same farm functions that they always have, only now such actions will be legal.
The DOL was wanting to clamp down on children working on farms, Munzlinger explained, but said the opposite is the case in Missouri.
“We’re allowing farm families to do what they’ve been doing for years. Most of us didn’t realize there was a law against some of the things we had our children doing,” he said.
Munzlinger went on to add that Missouri farm families already fight weather and the diverse economic climate.
“The one thing they shouldn’t have to fight is their own government. That’s why, here in Missouri, we will continue to protect the children and the families of our farmers. We are working on the Youth Employment in Agriculture Act. This act will help protect our farm families now and for future generations.”
The Youth Employment in Agriculture Act was presented by Munzlinger in the Missouri Senate two weeks ago. There are three weeks left in the 2012 legislative session.
David Baker, assistant dean of agriculture at the University of Missouri-Columbia explained that the current state law is more stringent than the federal regulation.
“The attorney general has gone on record that if the state statute is more restrictive it will take precedence over the federal regulation,” Baker said.
He explained  that the Missouri law is nearly identical to the current child labor laws at the federal level with the exception that there are no exemptions except for family labor.
What “family labor” consists of is not well defined.
“Our current Missouri state law is very restrictive as to what youth 16 and under can and cannot do.  Anything involving machinery, pesticides or anything that will likely cause injury or illnesses is covered and restricted.  Thus there’s  just about nothing they can do legally in agriculture for hire.”
He went on to add that the law is simply not enforced when it comes to children working on farms, but urged that farming is a risky job for young people.
“I think we need to do more, not less, related to protecting the [child] workforce. People need to be concerned with the safety and well-being of their children.”
He explained the proposed changes would have had an impact on anyone under working on farms under the age of 16, including the Amish community.
The Missouri state statute section 294.040 continues to  stand as law dictating what youth under 16 can and cannot do as far as occupations, including farm labor.
The DOL released a statement last Friday saying that the Obama administration is committed to promoting family farmers and respecting rural ways of life, especially the role that parents and other family members play in passing those traditions down through the generations.
They noted that the decision to withdraw was due to the thousands of comments received from across the nation raising concerns.
They made it clear that the regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration.
The DOL did say, however, that they, along with the Department of Agriculture, will work with rural stakeholders  –  such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union, the FFA, and 4-H to develop an educational program to reduce accidents to young workers and promote safer agricultural working practices.

In the meantime, farm families will undoubtedly continue to work in the ways they have for generations, including teaching their children to be  an integral part of the daily operations.