By Ricky O'Bannon
STILLWATER, Okla. —
Local groups and politicians are celebrating the Department of Labor’s decision to scrap plans to restrict certain farm work by minors.
The rule aimed to make child labor regulations for agricultural work on par with non-agricultural work. However, the proposed rules have come under scrutiny by critics who say the measure would disrupt traditional family farms and limit organizations like 4-H and FFA.
“As a 4-H professional and extension educator, I’m certainly glad they reconsidered because it would be a sad day if your people’s opportunities to participate in agriculture projects was diminished or opportunities were lost because of this,” said Brett Morris.
Morris works with the Payne County and Oklahoma State University extension office in the area of 4-H and youth development. He said thousands of people, including himself, have valuable experiences working on 4-H projects on farms and want that for their children and grandchildren.
The new regulations were suggested by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and one of those rules would have removed a certification program for those younger than 16 to operate most tractors and powered farm equipment without supervision, prohibit work that is done more than 6 feet off the ground and increase limitations on working with livestock, particularly around males during breeding season or mothers with newborns.
The regulations would not have applied to children working on a farm owned by their parents, but it would have prevented these youth workers from being employed on that farm if it was organized as an LLC or if the farm were owned by the worker’s grandparents. Additionally, some worried this rule would severely limit the opportunities for 4-H and FFA students to do projects on any farm or ranch not owned by their parents.
Morris said the rules were intrusive and threatened to disrupt family farm operations where children learn both responsibility and contribute to the family’s livelihood. Additionally, he said restrictions based on age didn’t take into account the maturity and responsibility that varies from child to child.
“Not all 15-year-olds are the same, not all 14-year-olds are the same, and not all 18-year-olds are the same,” Morris said.
The farm lifestyle, he said, teaches children the value of hard work and responsibility in a way that is hard to find elsewhere. Because children have to care for living things, they see the result of either their dedication or shirking responsibilities whenever that animal comes up for sale.
“Your results on sale day are a direct result of the work you put into it,” Morris said.
The rules were introduced last year, but the Department of Labor said in February it would rework the rules and hold a new public comment period on the changes. Thursday, the department stated it would do away with the changes it planned for youth workers 16 and younger entirely.
“The Department of Labor is announcing today the withdrawal of the proposed rule dealing with children under the age of 16 who work in agricultural vocations,” a release issued Thursday stated. “The decision to withdraw this rule — including provisions to define the ‘parental exemption’ — was made in response to thousands of comments expressing concerns about the effect of the proposed rules on small, family-owned farms.
“To be clear, this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration,” the statement said.
The Department of Labor also said it would look at education instead of regulation to lower the rate of farm injuries for minors.
“The 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 statement said.
Morris said 4-H in Payne County works with Creek County to produce a farm safety class every year. The program is for children ages 7 to 12, and aims to create awareness of potential dangers in agriculture work and how to stay safe. This year’s program will be on June 14 at the Payne County Expo Center, and Morris said registration information will be released soon.
“Programs like that, I think, would be the kind of things (the Department of Labor) wants to increase,” he said when asked about the statement.
Since the regulations were first introduced, Republican lawmakers from Oklahoma have been extremely critical. Friday, Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said he applauded the effort of those who protested the rules.
“I am pleased that common sense finally prevailed and the Department of Labor withdrew its burdensome, misguided proposed rule that would have prevented young people from working on farms,” Lucas said. “This proposed rule created great angst in the countryside about the impact it would have had on the future of the family farm.”
Lucas said the agricultural community coming together to speak against the rule was largely responsible for it being scrapped.
“The Obama administration has proposed numerous rules that affect family farmers and ranchers without fully knowing the impact of their actions,” Lucas said. “I hope this will serve as a lesson to the administration that they should seek input from the agriculture sector before continuing to move forward with unworkable regulations.”
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., was one of a group of senators who wrote a letter strongly condemning the rule, and he credited that effort in helping to get the rule killed.
“Family farms are a vital part of our nation’s economy, and they are the bedrock of rural American values and qualities like hard-work, determination, and ingenuity,” Inhofe said Friday. “I am glad this ridiculous attempt to penalize those family farms and what they represent has been stopped.”
While Thursday’s Department of Labor statement mentioned rules for workers 16 and younger, it did not mention another rule that would prevent workers younger than 18 from working in grain elevators, silos, feed lots, stockyards and livestock exchanges or auctions.
During a 2011 public hearing on the new rules, Reid Maki of the Child Labor Coalition cited an Aug. 4 accident in Kremlin, near Enid, where two 17-year-olds each lost a leg while trapped in a grain auger, as an example of a high injury rate among minors in agriculture.
Maki spoke with the Associated Press following the announcement Thursday and said more children will be hurt in accidents because of the decision. He said Republican lawmakers tried to capitalize on the issue for their own gain.
“There was tremendous heat and I don’t think it helped that it was an election year,” he said. “A lot of conservatives made a lot of political hay out of this issue.”