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Labor Department Revising Child Labor Plan

Scott Wilber works on fall cleanup of his watermelon field in this file photo. Helping him on his farm near Boone, Iowa, is his employee, MacKenzie Lewis, 15, (left), and his son, Drew, 14.
Peggy Lowe
Harvest Public Media
Scott Wilber works on fall cleanup of his watermelon field in this file photo. Helping him on his farm near Boone, Iowa, is his employee, MacKenzie Lewis, 15, (left), and his son, Drew, 14.

The U.S. Labor Department on Wednesday backed off a controversial change to child labor laws after an outcry from farm country, softening its stance on barring kids from working certain jobs on family farms.

The proposal will now be rewritten to include a broader definition of the parental exemption to the rules, which had been roundly criticized as ignoring farm traditions and keeping kids under age 16 from doing every-day jobs like driving tractors, branding cattle and using pesticides.

Reacting to the 18,000 public comments and the opposition of 98 U.S. lawmakers, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said the department will now be able to gather further public comment and revise its approach.

“The Department of Labor appreciates and respects the role of parents in raising their children and assigning tasks and chores to their children on farms,” she said in a prepared statement.

The parental exemption allows children who are employed by their parents, or a person standing in place of a parent, to work on a farm owned by the family.

But critics of the proposal said it failed to recognize the legal ownership changes of recent years, where kids are often paid by the corporation that owns the family’s farm. Those children would not have been exempt under the parental rule and would have been barred from doing those jobs the department deemed dangerous.

Extended family members – such as grandparents, uncles and aunts – also will be reconsidered under the revisions to the proposal, Solis said. The plan also may be changed to allow an exemption for parents who own a substantial part of the farm, officials said. Still murky is whether children under 16 would be able to work at a neighbor’s farm or ranch.

Scott Wilber, who owns a 20-acre farm near Boone, Iowa, applauded the decision, saying he wouldn’t have to worry about hiring kids from town and potentially breaking the law. He and his wife Julie believe that having their two children work on their farm makes the kids value hard work.

“I think it breeds a good work ethic, that they can know what it’s like to complete a job,” Wilber said. “They can see what they’ve done and be happy about it and not be afraid to get in there and work and get their hands dirty.”

Criticism of the proposal arose after it was published last September, the first change in child labor regulations in 40 years. Under that pressure, the department postponed a Nov. 1 deadline for a month, but the criticism continued past that deadline.

The proposal included prohibitions on children under 16 from operating power-driven equipment, working around animals and pesticides, and barring them from manure pits, storage bins, tobacco production and from working from a height of more than six feet.

Another piece of the plan, which would prevent  those under age 18 from working at stockyards, livestock auctions, commercial feed lots or grain elevators, will move forward as proposed and could be finalized in the next few months.

Safety advocates said the changes were long overdue and pointed to statistics showing that farm work is one of the most dangerous. According to the USDA, an average of 104 children die each year as a result of a farm-related injury and more than 22,000 kids are injured.

Among the many lawmakers who formally opposed the plan, U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., on Wednesday said he was pleased with the announcement of a revision, but he'd be happier if the Labor Department withdrew the rule entirely.

“I encourage them to scrap the whole thing and start over," he said.

The department will continue to study the parental exemption until early summer and will hold another 60-day public comment period after the plan is published, officials said.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack applauded the change, saying it will “ensure kids across the nation have the opportunity to learn the value and reward of good old-fashioned farm work” while still ensuring their safety.

Harvest Public Media, based at KCUR, is a collaborative public media project that reports on important agriculture issues in the Midwest. Funded by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Harvest Public Media has reporters at six NPR member stations in the region. To learn more, visit www.harvestpublicmedia.org, likeHarvest Public Media on Facebook or follow @HarvestPM on Twitter.

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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