Senators ask labor secretary to withdraw ‘misguided’ child farming regulations

Thirty senators are calling on Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to withdraw immediately proposed federal rules that would limit the work that young people can perform on farms.

Led by Sens. Jerry MoranJerry MoranGOP senators propose sending ISIS fighters to Gitmo Passing the Kelsey Smith Act will help law enforcement save lives Overnight Defense: VA chief 'deeply' regrets Disney remark; Senate fight brews over Gitmo MORE (R-Kansas) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), the senators have asked Solis to rethink her department’s “misguided” attempt to revise child labor laws for agriculture.

“[W]e request the Department withdraw the proposed rule immediately until such time as it can substantiate that any proposed changes to current [Agriculture Hazardous Orders] will significantly improve youth safety, while at the same time prevent significant adverse economic impacts on rural employers,” the senators’ letter states.

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The senators expressed puzzlement at the Labor Department’s proactive move to change the rules, “particularly considering the advancements in farm equipment and adoption of technologies that have improved operator safety in the last 35 years."

"The department was under no obligations to propose new regulations," the senators said.

The letter is yet another strike from Congress against the farming regulations. Lawmakers from both chambers, and particularly from farm states, have been urging the Labor Department for months to ditch the proposed rules. 

The new regulations would forbid children younger than 16 years of age from completing “agricultural work with animals and in pesticide handling, timber operations, manure pits and storage bins.” 

It would also forbid farm workers under 16 from handling most “power-driven equipment” and from contributing to the “cultivation, harvesting and curing of tobacco.”

Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), one of the most vocal opponents of the proposal, told The Hill earlier this month that the rules are proof that officials in the Obama administration do not understand rural life. 

“You’ve got a president of the United States … from Chicago, you’ve got a director for secretary of Labor who’s pushing this from Los Angeles, and you have to think to yourself, do you have any idea what it’s like not just to run an agricultural business in a rural state … but to raise a family in one?” said Rehberg, a fifth-generation rancher. 

The Labor Department stresses that none of the new labor rules would apply to children who work on farms operated or owned by their parents, but after a review of the proposal, senators said they are not convinced.

The senators singled out a portion of the regulation that they say “would restrict the existing agriculture parental exemption” by excluding families who only partially own or partially operate a farm.  

The Labor Department says the regulations would not apply to partially owned and operated family farms while emphasizing that the rules are intended to protect all children equally. 

“Children employed in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable workers in America. Ensuring their welfare is a priority of the department, and this proposal is another element of our comprehensive approach,” Solis said in a statement when the proposal was announced.

The Labor Department notes that the fatality rate for child farm workers is four times higher than that of non-agricultural child workers.