Obama officials to rework child-labor rule

The Obama administration plans to rework a regulation that lawmakers and industry groups fear would prohibit young people from working on family farms.  

The Department of Labor on Wednesday said it would re-propose a portion of the child-labor rule to allow for more input from members of Congress and the public. 

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Specifically, the department intends to reconsider its interpretation of the “parental exemption,” which allows children under 16 years of age to continue working on the farm of a parent or guardian. While the exemption is not new, the language in the rule caused controversy.

Opponents of the rule told The Hill in December that parents who don’t have full ownership of a property — a common situation — would not be covered by the exemption. While a Labor Department spokesman said the regulation would not affect families who partially own or partially operate a farm, many were still uneasy.

"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," Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said in a statement Wednesday. 

"Today's announcement to re-propose the parental exemption means the department will have the benefit of additional public comment, and the public will have an opportunity to consider a revised approach to this issue.”  

Several senators and representatives sent letters to Solis discouraging changes to the child labor regulations. Comments also flowed from farm associations, other members of Congress, unions and public health professionals on both sides of the issue.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, praised Solis’s move to re-propose the regulation.

“I am glad the Department of Labor heard my concerns and the concerns of so many families in Michigan and decided to re-evaluate this rule. I was concerned when I learned about the proposed rules,” Stabenow said in a statement. 

“Of course there should be safeguards to protect children from dangerous situations," she continued, "but there needs to be an understanding that many children in rural communities learn about safety by helping their family on the farm.”

The Labor Department decided to update the child labor law after studies showed that “children are significantly more likely to be killed while performing agricultural work than while working in all other industries combined,” the department’s release states. The proposal was initially published for comments Sept. 2.

The proposed rule 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.” 

A non-agricultural restriction would also prohibit children younger than 18 from working “in the storing, marketing and transporting of farm product raw materials.” 

The department will not be re-proposing any of these other portions of the proposed rule, a Labor Department official told The Hill.