Labor Department will focus on farm safety instead
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Political pressure from farm groups has convinced the federal government to call off stricter enforcement of on-farm child labor rules.
Farm families that incorporate for tax or legal reasons won't be subject to tighter child labor restrictions previously planned by the U.S. Labor Department.
The change was the result of continual outspoken criticism from agricultural organizations across the U.S. since the proposal was announced eight months ago.
"The grass roots reaction to this has been absolutely unprecedented," said Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers. "People didn't just get angry. They took real action."
The U.S. Labor Department said a proposed on-farm child labor rule will be scrapped for the rest of President Obama's time in office due to "thousands of comments expressing concerns about the effect of the proposed rules on small family-owned farms," the agency said in its announcement.
The agency instead plans to cooperate with farm groups to improve safety practices.
"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 agency said.
Last year, the Labor Department proposed child labor regulations aimed at promoting equality between farming and other industries.
Although children under 16 who work for their parents would have been excluded from these and other child labor rules, the agency's interpretation of that exception was narrowed.
Corporations or partnerships not solely owned by the parents would not have been exempted from the child labor rules because the agency thought they "might not always have the child's best interests at heart."
The rule angered farm groups, which worried that agricultural companies owned by multiple generations of a family, or by numerous family members, would no longer be allowed to employ their children for many tasks.
Children younger than 16 would also have been prohibited from working cattle on horseback or using equipment that's not powered by hand or foot, among other provisions, which further stoked opposition to the rules.
The agriculture industry's reaction to the new regulations was particularly vocal because farm and ranch organizations weren't consulted about the proposal during the planning stage, said Gasperini.
The Labor Department may now be more open to hearing the industry's views about improving child safety on farms, he said. "I hope they will do it through stakeholder outreach."
State agriculture groups were particularly effective at being passionate in their opposition without resorting to the kind of vitriol that would land their complaints in the "nut file," Gasperini said.
"They've been rational, reasonable and just kept the pressure up," he said.
Paul Schlegel, of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the organization had filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see documentation supporting the narrower "parental exemption" to child labor rules.
"There was nothing they gave us that would give us a basis for why they changed it," he said, noting that the group is still expecting the agency to provide more documentation.
Though the issue was particularly heated in rural states that aren't expected to play a deciding role in the upcoming presidential election, the timing and the united effort of farm groups were helpful, said Gasperini.
"I suspect the fact it's an election year didn't hurt," he said, adding that lawmakers got an earful about the subject. "There was a lot of pressure put on Congress."
The proposal was facing bipartisan opposition and legislation aimed at preventing the stricter rules, said Schlegel. "They probably saw the handwriting on the wall."