WASHINGTON, Oct. 28- The Department of Labor extended the comment period on a proposed rule that would restrict the activities of younger workers on farms and ranches. Senators Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kans.) sent the Labor Department a letter this Tuesday, Oct. 25, seeking an extension of the comment period.

In September, the U.S. Department of Labor announced proposed changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act, which could, among other provisions, prohibit children younger than 15 from working on a farm or ranch that is not directly owned by their parents.

Citizens were initially given until November 1, 2011, to submit comments on the proposal, making it difficult for agricultural producers who are in the midst of the harvest season to register their comments.

Yesterday, the Labor Department notified the senators that the comment period would be extended an additional 30 days. An official from the Department of Labor  sent a memo responding to the senators’ concerns. She wrote, “Because of the interest that has been expressed in this matter and the Department’s desire to obtain as much information about its proposals as possible, the Department will announce in the Federal Register on October 31, 2011, that it has extended the period for submitting public comment on the [rule] through December 1, 2011.”

Nelson and Moran believe the proposed rule fails to reflect the reality that ownership patterns of agricultural operations have changed over time, as farms and ranches have been passed from one generation to another. For instance, it is common for siblings to jointly own and operate farms and for extended families and neighbors to participate in agricultural production. They said the proposed rule could fundamentally alter these dynamics.

“One out of every three jobs in Nebraska is tied to agriculture. We need to increase opportunities for our family farmers and ranchers to strengthen our rural economies, not threaten them with new, unneeded regulations from Washington,” Senator Nelson said. “Nebraskans deserve the time to make sure their voices are heard on this misguided rule. It is another example of Washington being out of touch with Nebraskans’ values.”

Additionally, they said the proposed rule would put activities of extension programs and vocational education programs, such as 4-H and Future Farmers of America, in danger. 

"Nebraska's farmers and ranchers have a great number of issues with Department of Labor's proposal. Our main concern, however, is that the rule will drastically limit the ability for young people to gain valuable knowledge and experience in the many facets of agriculture,” Nebraska Farm Bureau President Keith Olsen said. "The proposed rule would make it even harder for the next generation of farmers and ranchers to develop the interest and work ethic necessary to come back to farm or ranch. It simply does not make sense for Nebraska agriculture."

During the month of October, Nelson and Moran built support among their colleagues for extending the public comment period on the rule. The letter they sent to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis on Tuesday was signed by 32 U.S. senators.

“If allowed to move forward in its current form, [the rule] would have vast implications for the agriculture industry. The original 60 days allowed for comment are not enough for the affected parties to express their concerns,” Nelson and Moran wrote in the letter to Solis. “Not only would this regulation, as currently drafted, have far reaching effects on youth agricultural education programs, farms, ranches and other agricultural businesses, it could greatly impact the structure of family farms and rural communities in the states we represent. We strongly urge you to consider extending the comment period an additional 60 days.”

In support of their effort, American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman said, “In towns from coast to coast, consumers enjoy a safe and affordable food supply due to the efficiency and performance of America's family farmers, but the Department of Labor’s proposed regulations threaten the future of our industry. In addition to being the economic backbone of so many of America’s towns, the traditions and the work ethic associated with growing up on a family farm are worth preserving, and the American Farm Bureau Federation appreciates Senators Moran and Nelson taking the lead on this important issue.”

In addition to Nelson and Moran, the letter was signed by U.S. Senators Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), James Risch (R-Idaho), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Chuck Grassley, (R-Iowa), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), John Boozman (R-Ark.), Dan Coats (R-Ind.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.), John Thune (R-S.D.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.).

Individuals may voice their opinions on the rule through the Federal eRulemaking Portal at http://www.regulations.gov and clicking on “Child Labor Regulations, Orders and Statements of Interpretation: Violations-Civil Money Penalties.”


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