By Rena Steinzor, cross-posted from CPRBlog

Yesterday evening, when press coverage had ebbed for the day, the Department of Labor issued a short, four-paragraph press release announcing it was withdrawing a rule on child labor on farms. The withdrawal came after energetic attacks by the American Farm Bureau, Republicans in Congress, Sarah Palin, and–shockingly–Al Franken (D-MN).

Last year, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said: “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.”

The Administration pledged to protect young workers in dangerous jobs, and now they’ve thrown that pledge out the window.

Yesterday, the Administration said this:

“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 Obama administration is also deeply committed to listening and responding to what Americans across the country have to say about proposed rules and regulations. As a result, 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.”

Give that excuse to the families of Alex Pacas (19) and Wyatt Whitebread (14), who were sent into a grain elevator without required safety harnesses to “walk the corn,” breaking up clumps so the grain could be removed from the elevator efficiently. The boys slipped into a hollow pocket, a common hazard in the industry, which is why the harnesses are required. They were smothered to death. Or we could ask the reaction of the families of another pair of boys, Tyler Zander and Bryce Gannon, both 17, whose legs got caught in a giant auger used to pull the grain into storage silos, causing grievous injuries.

None of these children were working for mom and dad on the family farm that provides such a convenient shield for agribusiness to hide behind. Instead, they were employed by the agribusinesses that produce 84 percent of the value of production nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These large-scale (annual income greater than $250,000) family and non-family farms account for 12 percent of some 2.2 million farms in the country. Equally to the point, the proposed rule the Department of Labor sent out for comment clearly exempted circumstances where children were working for their parents or engaging in truly educational activities like 4H. In February, DOL announced that it would modify the “parental exemption” language and was seeking further comment; the Agency was going to exempt children working not just for parents but for an adult “standing in the place of a parent.”

For all practical purposes, withdrawal of the regulations means that children under 16 can be legally employed by big corporations doing tasks that include a variety of life-threatening hazards.

Reaction from the agricultural community to President Obama’s about-face was ecstatic. The American Farm Bureau Federation gloated: “The Labor Department’s notification today that it is withdrawing proposed rules that would have prevented many young people from working in agriculture is the right decision for our nation’s family-based agriculture system. Farm Bureau appreciates the administration’s decision and efforts by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to listen to farmers, ranchers and other rural Americans. We also know that this would not have happened without the efforts of Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) and others in Congress, and we thank them for standing up for agriculture and the rural way of life.” (Rep. Rehberg, who is challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, used a congressional hearing to complain that the proposed rule might prevent him from hiring his ten-year-old neighbor to herd his cashmere goats on a motorcycle.)

But Republicans were not the only reason the White House killed the rule. Senator Al Franken (D-MN) said the withdrawal was “a good outcome.” The Labor Department, he said, “realized they needed to be working with farm groups and not doing it so much as regulations as a safety program because, as I said, no one cares more about their kids’ safety.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report issued in April 2010, “the greatest number of fatal injuries among younger workers occurred in the services (32 percent percent), construction (28 percent percent), wholesale and retail trade (10 percent), and agriculture (10 percent) industries. Younger workers experienced the highest rates of fatal injury in mining (36.5 per 100,000 full-time equivalent), agriculture (21.3 per 100,000 FTE), and construction (10.9 per 100,000 FTE).”

I admit that I find the political calculus underlying these Pander Games confusing. Granted, the Farm Bureau is capable of getting a lot of people in the Corn Belt riled up about this latest government “intrusion” on the “freedom” to have their kids help them around the homestead that has been in the family for generations. But the rule did nothing of the sort. The argument was entirely disingenuous. At some point, the President has to stand and deliver, explaining that regulations that protect children from gruesome injuries and death are not evidence of government run amok, but instead just plain common sense. Killing the rule will never win him Farm Bureau financial support, it’s the wrong thing to do, and it offends all the voters who know kids who have died or suffered grievous injuries in agricultural work.

Rena Steinzor, CPR President; Professor of Law, University of Maryland Carey School of Law. Bio.

Comments

  1. #1 Lisa J
    April 27, 2012

    From what I understood, the original wording made it illegal for multigenerational members to work the farm because younger children could ONLY work on their parents’ farm. Therefore a kid couldn’t go work on his grandfather’s farm, or his uncle’s farm, etc. Or, if it was a kid who was interested in farming but didn’t live on a farm (like my son), he couldn’t say, go throw hay at his girlfriend’s family’s farm or go help with the cattle when it’s time for innoculations at his step-uncle’s farm.

    Further, some LAWN MOWERS include PTO switches for an electric clutch – the law would have not only prohibited anyone under the age of 18 from driving a farm tractor (something my younger sister was taught at TWELVE), but even some regular lawn mowers.

    Another provision in the law was that children on family farms were prohibited from participating in anything that might cause pain, etc., to livestock. Since that can be subjective, it could be interpreted to mean that the child would not be allowed to halter a cow or ride a horse (you do have to dig your heels in to get them going, and a lazy one might even need a kick or three). They definitely couldn’t participate in butchering a chicken for Sunday dinner.

    The regulation was written up by people who have no understanding of rural living, family farming, etc. It is fine to encourage better safety standards (such as insisting that all OSHA standards must be adhered to for everyone, or at least for anyone under 18), etc., but interfering with parents’ decisions regarding what their children may learn or participate in regarding good old-fashioned work in this manner was over-reaching at best.

    It

  2. #2 Lisa J
    April 27, 2012

    I just read the article about the boys. It is a tragic loss. However, the woman sharing it said that there were already laws in place that that employer was BREAKING. If they were breaking that law, what makes you think that another law will make them decide to obey it?

    Increasing regulation doesn’t do much when it comes to scofflaws… they’re already ignoring legislation and regulation to begin with.

  3. #3 JPGK
    April 27, 2012

    Failure to enforce a law does not invalidate that law, nor is it grounds to dismiss new regulations to protect young workers.

    I agree that the proper implementation of existing regulations would be better than an impotent safety law – I passionately disagree that this in any way justifies the retraction of further regulations. The proper solution is the adoption of tight regulations protecting young workers; regulations which can and must be implemented and enforced.

    I don’t care if these kids are on a family farm, I don’t care if they’re on a corporate farm; I care about the kids.

    And when it comes to the kids, I’ll err on the side of caution every time; profits be damned.

  4. #4 Celeste monforton
    May 4, 2012

    Lisa J:
    There was nothing in the proposal that prohibited youngsters from working on farms. The proposal was suggesting that some of the most dangerous tasks would be prohibited for workers age 15 or younger (such as working in a manure pit) with some tasks being allowed if the youngster (14 or 15 year old) had received special training.

    It seems that reasonable people could have looked at the 13 hazardous tasks listed in the proposal and we could have agreed, for example, that working inside a grain silo is too dangerous for a 12 year old. Just like reasonable people agree that a worker under age 18 shouldn’t use a cardboard baler or drive a forklift. Maybe at the end of the rule making process only some of the proposed orders would have been put in place, or others modified based on feedback from experienced and knowledgeable commenters. But by withdrawing the rule in total, NONE of the protections will be put in place. That doesn’t speak well about what our society thinks about children and how little we respect their lives and future.