This time last week, many of us in the public health and workers' rights community were still in shock by the Obama Administration's decision to withdraw its proposed regulation to protect children who work on farms. Others weren't really surprised and simply chalked it up to the Administration caving into energetic attacks by the American Farm Bureau, Republicans in Congress (and some Democrats, too) and anti-regulation spinmaster radio hosts. The proposal recommended that children aged 15 years and younger---who are being paid as employees----be prohibited from doing some of the MOST dangerous tasks on farms. The 13 hazardous tasks included working in grain silos (where they can be fatally engulfed in grain), and working in a manure pit (where they can inhale deadly gases, pass out and drown in animal waste.) For some of the 13 hazardous tasks, child workers aged 14 and 15 would have been allowed to do some of these tasks if they received special training. Is that so unreasonable?
U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis is well known for her passionate speeches about the Department's commitment to address abuses of our nation's most vulnerable workers, whether they are veterans and older Americans unable to get jobs, or immigrant workers who may not understand their rights to a safe workplace. When this proposal to protect children working in U.S. agriculture was issued last fall, Solis pronounced that U.S. children employed in agricultural jobs are some of the most vulnerable workers, and the rules on the books were 40 years old and seriously out-of-date. The senior official responsible for the proposal put it even more eloquently, noting that we don't live in an ideal world where all employers assure the safety of their workers, including elementary school-age workers. Therefore, special rules to protect children are necessary.
Suddenly last week, the voices of reason for the protection of child workers on U.S. farms reversed themselves. Secretary Solis' Labor Department withdrew the proposal and declared last Thursday:
To be clear, this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration. (emphasis added)
Reading that "to be clear" was bad enough, but then they had to lock the door and throw away the key with the "duration of the Obama Administration" phrase.
I guess we know when this Administration changes it tune, they mean it. So much so that they are now trying to pretend that they never made any proposal to protect young workers on U.S.
Get this, if you go to the Labor Department's Wage and Hour website, there's not a nugget, not a morsel, not a crumb of information about this proposed rule.
If you click into the child labor-specific page you'll see information about a rule finalized in 2010 to protect youngsters who work for pay in other industries (e.g., restaurants, landscaping, amusement parks, childcare centers, etc.) but not a peep about what the Labor Department wanted to do to protect the same kind of kids who are working in agriculture. Does the Labor Department think it can just erase history by removing all evidence of this proposal? Is it so embarassed to be the voice for children? For goodness sake, these are kids in rural America who may be working to help their families make ends meet, or pay for clothes or school supplies.
The documents that the Obama Administration's Labor Department has scrubbed from its Wage and Hour Division website include the following:
*a side-by-side analysis illustrating the difference between the current (inadequate) rules for children working in agriculture, and the proposed changes;
*a factsheet explaining the proposed rule;
*a document responding to misunderstandings and/or misinformation about the proposed rule, called Five Facts; and,
*the proposed regulation published in the Federal Register in September 2011 (which is, of course, still available from the Government Printing Office.)
We'll be storing these and other documents related to this proposed rule on the DefendingScience.com website.
If anyone has any insight as to how or why these documents disappeared from the DOL website, or who ordered they be removed, please leave a comment.
Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH appreciates the assistance of Mary Miller, RN, a child labor and young worker specialist at the Washington State Dept. of Labor and Industries, for her contributions to this post. Mary's research on the history of the agricultural hazardous occupations orders was published earlier this year in the Journal of Agromedicine.
Maybe if we had rules on the books like the one proposed, then withdrawn, we could prevent tragedies like the one reported a month later....
May 24, 2012 Washington Post article by Mary Pat Flaherty -
A Pennsylvania Mennonite dairy farmer and two of his sons were found dead in a deep manure pit in Kent County Thursday morning in an apparent farm accident that remains under investigation by Maryland State Police.
The three from Lancaster County worked at the farm in Kennedyville every day, state police said. They pumped liquid manure from a 20-foot deep and sloping pit through large augers to ready the fertilizer for use on fields.
Glen W. Nolt, 48, Kelvin R. Nolt, 18, and Cleason S. Nolt, 14, of Peach Bottom in Lancaster County were last seen by other farm workers at about 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, state police said.
When the Nolts did not return by about 5 p.m. to milk cows at their own farm, family members became worried and drove to Maryland where they found a tractor and the father’s pickup truck parked and idling beside the 2-million gallon manure pond. .......
My husband brought this same story to my attention. I reminded him that the DOL proposed rule would not have applied to children working on their own family's farm, as is case here. Of course, that didn't stop the opponents of better protection for child workers to claim that the Obama Administration was trying to "ruin the rural way of life" and "kill the family farm." My husband replied, "what's worse, killing the family farm, or having the farm kill the family."
My prayers go out to the Nolt family and their Mennonite community.
It doesn't take a whole lot of insight to recognize that throughout the Obama presidency the health and safety of children have taken a back seat to utilitarian political considerations. From the child soldier sanction waivers, to drone strikes against family compounds in Yemen and Pakistan known to contain women and children, to the abandonment of the child farm worker safety regulations, President Obama has demonstrated there is not a single principle that he is not willing to compromise. He does not deserve the vote of people who truly care about the health and safety of children. The lesser of two evils is still evil and he should not be rewarded for pursuing policies that are truly evil.