Lawmakers put child agricultural labor rules under the microscope

By Sarah Gonzalez

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Feb. 2- Members of Congress, farm owners and other agricultural representatives filed their concerns regarding proposed, stricter rules for children working in agriculture today. The House Committee on Small Business Subcommittee on Agriculture, Energy and Trade examined the Department of Labor's recently proposed rules on child labor in agriculture in today's hearing, with harsh criticism directed at the reasoning for the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM).

“I'll do whatever I can to keep this regulation from ever being allowed as it is written,” said Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) at today's hearing. “It makes no sense.”

The revisions are drawing critics from Republicans and Democrats, as well as more than 10,000 comments from the public. Children working on farms owned by their parents are exempt from restrictions, which include limits to herding activities and machinery operation. 

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The Department of Labor announced yesterday that it would re-propose the “parental exemption” portion of the NPRM, due to comments from the public that family farms are involved in a variety of business models and partnerships. Nancy Leppink, Deputy Wage and Hour Administrator at the Department of Labor, said the department would continue to review comments regarding portions of the proposed rule for inclusion in the final rule. 

“While I am pleased by the DOL's announcement yesterday that it was going to resubmit the parental exemption portion of the NPRM, other provisions of this rule will make it difficult, if not impossible, for youths interested in agriculture to access comprehensive on-farm education and employment opportunities,” said Subcommittee on Agriculture, Energy and Trade Chairman Scott Tipton (R-Colo.). “Farming is a profession learned by doing and there is no substitute for actual on-farm or ranch experience.”

Leppink testified that the regulation “is only targeting the youngest workers in the most hazardous occupations; it doesn't eliminate young children from working all farm jobs.”

However, Kent Schescke, representing the National FFA Organization, said his greatest concern refers to the regulation's student learner exemption. In the current rules, students enrolled in vocational training in agriculture are exempt from labor restrictions. The proposed revisions of the child labor rules expand Hazardous Occupation areas (H.O.'s) in agriculture. However, not every H.O. area is covered by the student learner exemption in the proposed revisions. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health makes 14 recommendations concerning the current Ag H.O.s, which include limits on children under 16 years old from operating tractors and using ladders higher than six feet. 

“The proposed rules would severely limit or eliminate opportunities to participate in the experiential learning aspects of our program,” Schescke said. “We believe we provide safe learning environments for students that help them succeed in the industry of agriculture.” 

Representatives from the Labor Department argue that the rules are a long overdue attempt to modernize rules last updated in the 1970's. When the new regulations were first proposed last fall, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis described children working in agriculture as “some of the most vulnerable workers in America.”

The Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that the fatality rate for agricultural workers who are 15 to 17 years of age is 4.4 times greater than the risk for the average worker in that age range. The most common cause of agricultural deaths among young workers is farm machinery, with tractors involved in over half of the fatalities.

“Many tragic and unnecessary accidents involving children employed in agriculture never make the national news, but result in significant harm to the lives of those children and their families,” Leppink said.

However, Rep. Mark Critz (D-Penn.) and West Virginia Department of Agriculture representative, Robert Tabb, both cited statistics from the Childhood Agricultural Injury Survey, which show that the rate of childhood agricultural injuries per 1,000 farms declined by 59 percent between 1998 and 2009.

Although Tabb recognized that some occupational hazards like cell phone usage while operating machinery and pesticide handling should be addressed, he said it would be in the Department's best interest to fund current safety programs that educate children and families instead of imposing more restrictive rules.

The representatives questioning the witnesses at today's hearing expressed concern that, although the rule may be well-intentioned, too many unintended consequences and confusing interpretations are associated with the Department's proposed rulemaking. 

“This rule altogether should never have been proposed,” said Tipton. “This is bad for agricultural small businesses and the future of our nation's farming needs.”

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