Feds’ Decision to Scrap New Child Farmworker Restrictions Welcomed by Ag Interests

Tennessee farmers are breathing a sigh of relief after the Obama administration retreated from a proposal to restrict the kinds of agriculture-related jobs people under the age of 18 can legally perform in America.

Rhedona Rose, executive vice president for the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation, said rules proposed by the U.S. Department of Labor last summer seeking to ban, for example, children younger than 16 from being employed to operate certain mechanized farm equipment, like tractors and hay balers, drew significant opposition across Tennessee.

“We received more comments on this issue last fall than anything else we were dealing with,” said Rose. “We were very, very pleased last week when we heard that the president and the U.S. Department of Labor decided to back away from these proposed rules.”

In fact, the U.S. Labor Department acknowledged it was inundated with complaints from across the country’s countrysides. It announced Friday it would no longer pursue the changes, saying the decision was “made in response to thousands of comments expressing concerns about the effect of the proposed rules on small family-owned farms,” according to a department press release.

“To be clear, this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration,” the statement read.

Tennessee state Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, sponsored legislation earlier this year that prohibited state and local government entities in Tennessee from facilitating or helping enforce any new federal rules limiting the kind of work kids can do on the farm.

The legislation, HB2669, passed the House 70-24-1 and the Senate 28-0. It was signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam April 16.

Faison said Tennessee farmers and legislators who voted in favor of his measure deserve credit for encouraging Washington to rethink a misguided policy.

“I feel like this is one time that government got it right,” said Faison. “Many states, not just ours, and farmers all across America, stood up and said, ‘Listen, this isn’t okay.’”

The proposed rules were backed by organized labor and progressive advocacy groups, which argued some farm work is too dangerous for underage employees, as evidenced by it having the highest rates of injury and death for young people in the workforce.

“Children employed in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable workers in America,” U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis said back in August when the new rules were unveiled. “Ensuring their welfare is a priority of the department, and this proposal is another element of our comprehensive approach.”

Reid Maki, coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition, a group at the forefront of the push for stricter regulations, blasted the Obama administration for caving to pressure from agriculture groups and hysteria orchestrated by the president’s political opponents. “There was tremendous heat, and I don’t think it helped that it was an election year,” Maki told the Washington Post after the labor department’s decision was announced last week. “A lot of conservatives made a lot of political hay out of this issue.”

Sally Greenberg, co-chair of the Child Labor Coalition, said in a statement Monday that “agriculture is by far the most dangerous industry that large numbers of teens are allowed to work in.”

“Nearly 100 kids are killed on farms each year,” she continued. “The Department of Labor’s sensible recommendations — based on years of research indicating the jobs in which teen injuries and deaths occur — sought to protect these hired farmworkers. Unfortunately, the proposed rules fell victim to misinformation and exaggeration from the farm lobby.”

The Tennessee Farm Bureau’s Rose said that while there’s no doubt farm work can indeed be dangerous, kids who grow up working on farms tend to take lessons about the importance of safety to heart. She said farm-oriented organizations like 4-H and Future Farmers of America are always trying to improve how they teach kids about the fundamental importance of safety around dangerous crop- and livestock-production operations.

“Anytime you’re working around agriculture, you have to be very, very aware of the dangers around you, whether you’re a child or an adult,” Rose said. “But I think most children who grow up on a farm have a better sense of danger, and a better sense of what to be careful around than, oftentimes, children who are not exposed to those types of jobs.”

She added that most people who live and work in rural areas believe the lifestyle builds a strong work ethic and sense of self-reliance that will help a young person become a responsible, capable adult.

“I daresay that most adults today who had an opportunity to work on a farm when they were younger would cite the experiences of working on a farm to building them into the type of person, the type of adult that they are today, and they feel good about those experiences,” said Rose.