Dept. of Labor Backs Off on Farm Youth Rules

Agency says it will take a further look at its parental exemption in child labor law although many say entire rule should be scrapped.

The U.S. Department of Labor announced Feb. 1 it plans to re-propose its parental exemption portion of an agriculture child labor proposed rule first published in September 2011, but will move forward on the rest of the rule. Many say the entire rule goes too far and should be scrapped altogether.  

The re-proposed portion of the rule is expected to be published for public comment by early summer. Department officials noted that an overwhelming amount of comments from farm families as well as Congressional members indicated that need for additional time to evaluate the comments as well as seek more input to make potential changes to the proposed rule. The comment period was extended from Nov. 1 to Dec. 1, 2011 (see previous blog post).

The parental exemption allows children of any age who are employed by their parent, or a person standing in the place of a parent, to perform any job on a farm owned or operated by their parent or such person standing in the place of a parent. Congress created the parental exemption in 1966 when it expanded protections for children employed in agriculture and prohibited their employment in jobs the Department of Labor declared particularly hazardous for children under the age of 16 to perform.

The department said it recognizes the unique attributes of farm families and rural communities as well as the corporate structure that has changed in the past 40 years. The re-proposal process will seek comments and inputs as to how the department can comply with statutory requirements to protect children, while respecting rural traditions.

Until the revised exemption is final, the Wage and Hour Division said it will apply the parental exemption to situations in which the parent or person standing in the place of a parent is a part owner of the farm, a partner in a partnership or an officer of a corporation that owns the farm if the ownership interest in the partnership or corporation is substantial. This approach is consistent with guidance the Wage and Hour Division has provided to the public on its website for the past several years. 

One of the main concerns raised in comments was the ability for grandchildren or other family members to work on the farm. A department official said in a press call Wednesday that this issue will be “carefully considered” when the rule is re-proposed.

In a department press release, Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis added, “The Department of Labor appreciates and respects the role of parents in raising their children and assigning tasks and chores to their children on farms and of relatives such as grandparents, aunts and uncles in keeping grandchildren, nieces and nephews out of harm’s way.”

Concerns still exist

The remainder of the proposed rule not pertaining to the parental exemption will move forward in the rulemaking process including sections on children working in grain elevators and processing facilities.

Sens. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, both encouraged the Department of Labor to “scrap the whole thing” in regards to the entire rule and start over.

Sen. John Tester, D-Mont., who first petitioned for an extension of the comment period last October, said the Labor Department clearly didn’t get the whole message and “doesn’t go far enough” towards finding a real, commonsense solution. In a statement last December, Tester expressed concerned that the new restrictions eliminate exemptions for completion of safety courses through 4-H or the local extension service.

Rep. Scott Tipton said other provisions of this proposed rule will still make it difficult, if not impossible, for young people to access comprehensive on-farm education and employment opportunities.

"For example, the rule would still ban youth younger than 16 from doing certain activities on the farm such as using power-driven equipment,” he stated in an audio interview.

Dept. of Labor Backs Off on Farm Youth Labor Rules

Testifying Feb. 2 on behalf of the American Farm Bureau Federation, Missouri hog farmer Chris Chinn told the House Small Business’ Subcommittee on Agriculture, Energy and Trade that while the reconsideration of the parental exemption was appreciated, “it is clear to all of us in the agricultural community that merely ‘tweaking’ the rule will not fix something that we believe is fundamentally flawed.” (View a short video of Chinn's testimony.)

Chinn said it really comes down to DOL’s lack of understanding regarding the societal structure of the farming community, how farms are organized and “how farm families help one another.” She said there was clearly a lack of appreciation and grasp in the proposed regulations of “what it is like to live in rural America.”

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