Labor department dumps proposed child labor rules

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) formally withdrew its controversial proposed restrictions on youth working on farms and ranches last Thursday following months of fierce opposition from farmers, agricultural groups like the FFA and 4-H and pressure from elected officials from agriculturally based states.

Lovell High School Students Kristin Cerroni and Amanda Allred demonstrated how to saddle horses for a group of elementary school students at a recent FFA event held in Cowley. Had the proposed child farm labor rules gone into effect, the two girls would have not been allowed to work with animals this large.

The proposed rules would have prohibited youth under the age of 18 from working with certain animals, including performing chores such as herding on horseback, rounding up chickens for slaughter, vaccinating, hoof trimming and other common practices. The rules would have prohibited youth from handling most animals more than six months old, which those in opposition felt would have severely limited youth participation in 4-H and FFA activities.

The rules would have also prohibited youth from operating most farm machinery, including tractors and any other equipment over 20 PTO horsepower and would have prohibited youth from completing tasks at elevations over six feet high, like working in barns and from working at stockyards and grain bins. Some critics of the rules claim, the language of the proposed rules was so strict that it would have even banned youth from operating a battery powered screwdriver or a pressurized garden hose.

Following a barrage of letters, the DOL yielded somewhat a few months ago, by stating that it would bend the rules a bit to exempt children under the age of 16 from child farm labor rules in cases where a parent is either part owner, member of a partnership, or an officer with substantial ownership interest in the farm. The original proposal exempted children only in cases where the farm was “wholly owned” by the child’s parents.

Although the expanded exemptions helped family farms, they didn’t do much for educational programs like the FFA and 4-H, where children who may not necessarily come from a farm or ranch family are afforded the opportunity to have a true “hands-on” agricultural learning experience through supervised projects like raising animals for market or learning to operate farm equipment. Consequently, the pressure to withdraw the rules continued to mount. As the chorus of protests from the ag community grew louder, elected officials began political maneuvers that took aim at the DOL until it finally dropped the proposed rules altogether.

“This proposal was a clear intrusion on the family farm by the government,” said U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming. “I’d like to thank the families across the country that took the time to voice their opposition to this proposed government intrusion and firmly drew a line in the sand. This is truly a victory for the family farm and the dedicated, time-tested student organizations like 4-H and FFA that were targeted by this proposal. I will see to it that this proposal or anything like it moving forward, does not receive one dime from the taxpayer.”

Lummis, who grew up on a ranch in Wyoming, is a member of the House Appropriations Committee and has been an outspoken opponent of the measure since it was first introduced. In a political maneuver designed to block the proposal, she and Rep. Denny Rehberg of Montana worked together to literally cut off funding for it in the Department of Labor’s annual appropriations bill.

Senators Mike Enzi and John Barrasso of Wyoming were also very vocal in their opposition to the proposal and issued positive statements to the media the same day the proposal was dropped by the DOL.

“If the Administration follows through on its promise to not pursue these rules, this is a win for agriculture and the traditions of rural America,” said Enzi. “The federal government has no place telling families how they can raise their children on the farm.”

Barrasso took his comments one step further and severely chastised the current administration for even allowing such rules to be proposed in the first place.

“It’s clear that the only reason the Obama Administration canceled this absurd rule is because of the President’s upcoming election. The fact that the Administration even proposed it in the first place shows how out of touch they are with hard working family farms across the country and their way of life,” said Barrasso. “This rule would have also threatened successful farm safety training and certification programs like 4-H, Extension Service, and FFA.”

Lovell High Schools FFA advisor and ag instructor Wil Zollman was equally pleased to see the rules dropped.

“They finally saw the reality of what they were trying to do,” said Zollman. “The fact that they have dropped this whole proposal is a great thing for the future of agriculture.”

Zollman has 31 students enrolled in the FFA program at Lovell High School. Fifty-two students attend the ag classes he teaches at the school. Zollman estimates that at least half of the students in the FFA program he supervises would have been affected had the proposed rules gone into effect.

About a dozen ag students are active members of the Rocky Mountain FFA Chapter at Rocky Mountain High School.

By Patti Carpenter