Department of Labor listens child farming rules withdrawn


    Sometimes the federal government does listen to the governed.

    In very late April, the U.S. Department of Labor announced the withdrawal of its proposed child labor rule governing the activities of children under the age of 16 who work in agriculture.

    The proposed rule had garnered vast opposition from farm families and agricultural organizations. Criticism of the regulation also reached a groundswell on social media outlets after negative mention on Internet blogs and electronic media sites such as the Drudge Report.

    In reversing its decision, the Department of Labor also emphasized that the rule would not be revisited for the duration of the Obama administration.

    If implemented, the rule would have prohibited children under 16 from engaging in many traditional farming activities. The proposed rule redefined and limited the parental exemption and also abolished the student-learner exemption in many areas.

    The current definitions of terms at issue can be found in Department of Labor regulations and on the Department of Labor website.

    Opponents of the rule believed that it would have drastically and negatively altered the types of farming tasks that could have been performed by children on family farms, and it was this type of criticism that caused the government to reverse its 2011 decision to enact the ruling.

    In a related press release, the Department of Labor stated that “the decision to withdraw this rule — including provisions to define the ‘parental exemption’ — was made in response to thousands of comments expressing concerns about the effect of the proposed rules on small family-owned farms,” adding: “To be clear, this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration.”

    The Department of Labor’s decision was praised by lawmakers from farming states. As Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, stated, “If this proposal had gone into effect, not only would the shrinking rural work force have been further reduced and our nation’s youth deprived of valuable career-training opportunities, but a way of life would have begun to disappear.”

    Many others cited their belief that the literal “work ethic” developed from rigorous farming activity is on the wane in the U.S. and would have been diminished further as the result of the now-withdrawn regulations.

    Still other commentators believed that the Department of Labor’s withdrawn activities were really a thinly veiled attempt to curry the voting favor of organized labor, whose members might have replaced the child laborers whose work activities would have been prevented by the proposed rules.

    Included in the withdrawn proposal were rules that would have prevented children from working with tobacco or operating the vast majority of power-driven farm equipment.

    Not all of the reaction to the Department of Labor’s proposed rule was negative. Some proponents of the proposed rules believe that a tightening of farm-related child labor laws would have created a safer environment for children, such as those who could be injured or killed as the result of serious industrial farming accidents while using the machinery of farming.

    In response, opponents of the rule pointed to thousands of accidents suffered each year by children on recreational devices such as skateboards, rollerblades and bicycles, none of which were the focus of similar governmental regulation by other federal agencies.

    With the withdrawal of the proposed new rule, child labor rules will remain unchanged. Minors under the age of 16 still may not engage in “agricultural hazardous occupations” as currently defined, including operation of a tractor with more than 20 horsepower or work on a ladder or scaffold more than 20 feet high.

    The Department of Labor’s reversal of its position aside, agricultural employers must continue to be cautious when employing minors under 18 to engage in work in coordination with other farmers, such as packing another farmer’s produce or sharing workers with another farmer. These activities likely fall outside the definition of agriculture and thus would be subject to the stricter nonagricultural child labor laws.

    Bill Rohn is a trial partner in the law firm of Varnum LLP.

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