Obama administration scraps child labor restrictions for farms

The Labor Department withdrew a proposed rule Thursday that would have limited the work that children can perform on farms.

The proposal drew heavy criticism from rural-state lawmakers and agricultural leaders, who cast the rule as government overreach that would erode the traditional American family. Others in Congress supported the rule, and unions argued it was needed to make farm work safer for young adults. 

In nixing the proposal, the Labor Department cited the need to protect "the rural way of life."

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"The Obama administration is firmly committed to promoting family farmers and respecting the rural way of life, especially the role that parents and other family members play in passing those traditions down through the generations," the Labor Department said in a statement announcing the withdrawal of the rule.

"The Obama administration is also deeply committed to listening and responding to what Americans across the country have to say about proposed rules and regulations."

The new regulations would have forbidden 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 have barred farm workers under 16 from handling most “power-driven equipment” and from contributing to the “cultivation, harvesting and curing of tobacco.”

The Labor Department received thousands of comments on the proposed rule from safety advocates, ranchers, unions, agriculture associations and members of Congress. Many were concerned the rule would apply to family farms, despite an exemption included by the Labor Department.

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin became the latest high-profile politician to take issue with the proposal in a Facebook post on Wednesday

“[The rule] is more overreach of the federal government .. and if you think the new regs will stop at family farms think again,” Palin wrote.

“My family is a commercial fishing family, and commercial fishing in Alaska is much like the family farm (but the year 'round farmers no doubt work harder than we do!) ... Our kids learn to work and to help feed America on our nation’s farms, and out on the water,” Palin wrote.

"Federal government: get your own house in order and stop interfering in ours.”

The department announced in February that it would rework a portion of the child-labor rule focused on a “parental exemption.”    

That exemption would apply to children who work on their own parents’ farms. The exemption also would have applied to families who partially own or partially operate a farm.

But critics of the rule, including Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), argued the language of the exemption was unclear. He said it would be left “to the whims of how the next Labor secretary or the next administration decides to interpret these rules,” Rehberg said.

“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?” Rehberg told The Hill in December.

The Labor Department pointed to the “parental-exemption” on Thursday in explaining the reason for the withdrawal of the rule. The department also said it would not pursue the regulation again “for the duration of the Obama administration.”

But that does not mean the administration is done with the issue of safety for child workers. The Labor Department had previously defended the rule as necessary while noting that the fatality rate for child farm workers is four times higher than that of non-agricultural laborers.

Instead of changing labor laws, the administration now plans to work with farming groups to develop safety training programs.

“[T]he Departments of Labor and Agriculture will work with rural stakeholders — such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union, the Future Farmers of America, and 4-H to develop an educational program to reduce accidents to young workers and promote safer agricultural working practices,” the Labor Department said.

American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman commended the administration for its decision to withdraw the proposed changes. He also commended those who sent comments to the Labor Department, saying the decision shows “the strength of American agriculture and grassroots action.”

“This victory for farm families is due to the thousands of farmers and ranchers who sent comments to the Labor Department opposing the rules and continued to voice their concerns with members of Congress,” Stallman said.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who Rehberg is challenging in one of this fall's most watched Senate contests, also thanked the department for choosing to back off the child labor law changes. Tester opposed the rule because he argued it would threaten the “rural way of life.”

“Montana is a world leader in agriculture because our farmers learn the values of responsible, safe work at an early age,” said Tester. “I appreciate the Department of Labor listening to my concerns and those of hard-working Montana farmers and dropping these rules so we can continue our way of life and keep feeding America.”

This story was updated on April 27.