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Published March 19, 2012, 11:18 AM

Youth farm labor issue debated

WASHINGTON — Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., told Labor Secretary Hilda Solis on March 14 that she had not done a good enough job in reaching out to the farm community or Congress in developing a rule to restrict youth labor on farms.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., told Labor Secretary Hilda Solis on March 14 that she had not done a good enough job in reaching out to the farm community or Congress in developing a rule to restrict youth labor on farms.

But Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said that federal rules limited Solis’s ability to respond, and Solis said her agency would take all comments into consideration in finalizing the rule.

At a WASHINGTON — Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., told Labor Secretary Hilda Solis on March 14 that she had not done a good enough job in reaching out to the farm community or Congress in developing a rule to restrict youth labor on farms. At a House Health, Human Services and Education Appropriations Subcommitee hearing on the Labor Department’s fiscal year 2013 budget, Moran noted that Solis had declined to meet with him to discuss the rule, had not accepted an invitation to travel to Kansas to meet with farm families and FFA members, and had responded to a letter from 30 senators by saying only that the comments would be taken into account by writing the rule.

Moran reminded Solis that he had known her since the two of them served together in the House, and that he found her a conscientious legislator, but “The outreach that should have occurred before the rules were proposed fell short.” The Labor Department, he added, “is so out of touch with farm families.”

Moran was referring to the Labor Department’s proposal to rewrite the rule implementing a federal law that exempts children from laws that make it illegal for children under 18 to perform many jobs, particularly those involving hazardous equipment.

Children have been allowed to work on their parents’ farms at any age, and in general workers who are 16 can perform all tasks on farms. The rule regarding child labor on farms has not been changed for 40 years, and the Obama administration has proposed updating it to say that parents must wholly own or operate the farm or ranch if their children are to work on it, and to restrict the age at which youth who are not family members can operate hazardous equipment.

After protests from farm groups and the FFA, the Labor Department has pulled back the portion of the rule about children working on their parents’ farms, and Solis has indicated she believes children should be able to work on farms owned by relatives other than parents.

Moran said he is critical of the rule-writing process and the result that the Labor Department seems to want to achieve, and in particular is concerned about three aspects of the proposed rule.

On the parental exemption, Moran said, “We don’t know what the proposed rule would be.”

He also said he disagreed with a Labor Department statement that FFA and 4-H training programs are “locally driven and lacking federal direction,” and that other training programs should be required if children are to operate equipment.

Moran said his third concern is the restriction on hazardous equipment, which he described as “too broad.” A height restriction would mean that a youth could not operate a tractor from a cab or a power-driven screwdriver, Moran said.

If the government can regulate these relationships between parents and children, it can intervene in people’s lives in other ways, he added.

Before Solis could answer, Harkin said he wanted to note for the record that the Administrative Procedures Act prevents Solis from discussing the rule with members of Congress and others while it is being considered. Labor officials, Harkin noted, “are limited in what they can say and how they can approach it.”

Harkin also noted that while he shares some of the concerns about the rewrite, he believes there are good reasons to change the rule after 40 years, noting that experts have learned a lot of about youth labor since it was implemented and that thousands of children are injured every year.

Harkin also suggested that interested parties look to the work of an Iowa group called “Farm Safety 4 Just Kids.”

Solis said that work on parents’ and relatives’ farms “should be allowable, but we have to work to prevent fatalities in situations that are not protected.”

She also noted a study released recently that youth accidents are a big cost to agriculture businesses. Solis also said that the example of the power-driven screwdriver had been taken out of context and would be addressed in the final rule.

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