Second Effort Ahead for Child Ag Labor Plan

February 2, 2012 03:54 AM

Farm groups say revision is a positive step, but rule still needs more work

Part of a controversial proposal to limit labor by children on their families' farms is getting a second look.

The U.S. Department of Labor will re-propose the "parental exemption" in proposed regulations for child labor in agriculture.

"The decision to re-propose is in response to requests from the public, including congress, to allow time for more input on this aspect of the rule," said a department official in a conference call with reporters.

Adam Nielsen, director of national legislation and policy development at Illinois Farm Bureau, said it's a step in the right direction.

"One of the biggest problems we had with this proposed rule was the very narrow definition of what constitutes a family farm," said Nielsen. "It's welcome to see them step back and recognize that the family farm is much broader than the way they had it" in the proposal.

Under provisions enacted by Congress in 1966, children of any age who are employed by their parent or another person standing in place of a parent may perform any job on a farm that is owned or operated by their parent or the person in the place of their parent.

The Labor Department said in September that it was proposing regulatory changes in line with recommendations from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and to bring regulations closer together for agricultural and non-agricultural child labor.

Until the department adopts a final rule, the Wage and Hour Division will allow children younger than 16 to work on a farm in which their parent or a person in place of a parent is part owner, partner, or officer of a corporation that owns the farm. The ownership must be "substantial," but that term is not defined.

"The division will discontinue its current enforcement practice as proposed in the September 2011 proposal, that the farm be wholly owned or operated by the parent or person standing in the place of the parent," according to a department spokesperson.

Comments from Agriculture

When the department published its proposed regulations, it said its proposals "in no way compromise the statutory child labor parental exemption involving children working on farms owned or operated by their parents."

However, farm owners and operators and organizations representing farm interests disagreed. The vast majority of more than 9,000 comments came from the ag community, noted Nielsen.

"We are not guaranteeing anything about what will be in the proposed rule," said one department official, "except that it will be a revision from the original proposal and we will take into account the comments, especially from rural communities and owners of family farms, to be sure we are responsive to the input they have provided."

The re-proposal will relate only to the "parental exemption" provisions in the September proposal. The department is proceeding with the rule-making process on other parts of the proposal.

After the department's Wage and Hour Division publishes a re-proposal by early summer, it will accept more comments from the public. Comment periods typically are open for 60 days.

Still an 'Imposing Rule'

"It is still a very imposing rule," said Nielsen. Separate from the re-proposal regarding the parental exemption, he said the rule limits supervised work opportunities for 14- and 15-year-olds.

"We will encourage our members to comment on the revised parental exemption," he said, but noted, "Our feeling is that the Department of Labor needs to withdraw the whole thing."

In a written statement, American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman welcomed the re-proposal of the parental exemption as a positive step, but said the proposal needs more work.

"Any final regulation must make sense, not infringe on the traditional rights of family farms and not unnecessarily restrict the ability of young people to work in agriculture," said Stallman.

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