WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senators Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) this week led 28 of their colleagues in asking U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis to withdraw the recently proposed rule that limits the ability of farmers and ranchers to hire youth to work in agriculture – threatening the education and training of future farmers. At issue are the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) proposed changes to the Fair Labor Standard Act which fail to take into account the history and practices of American agriculture.
"After having additional time to review the Proposed Rule and compare the proposed changes to existing statutory law, regulations, and the Department’s existing interpretive documents, we believe initial concerns were well-founded. As a result of these concerns, we request the Department withdraw the Proposed Rule in its entirety,” the Senators state in a letter to Secretary Solis. “It is puzzling why the Department would suddenly propose changes to existing regulations, particularly considering the advancements in farm equipment and adoption of technologies that have improved operator safety in the last 35 years."
Until recently, farms jointly owned and operated by multiple family members had discretion over the responsibilities they gave their children on the farm. But the proposed rule change would do away with that freedom and extend the parental exemption to farms owned solely by a parent. It is common in rural America for siblings to jointly own and operate farms and for extended family and neighbors to participate in agriculture production. With this rule change, the government is proposing to tell farmers and ranchers: “We know what’s best for your children, and what they should and should not be doing."
The Department also proposes new, unnecessary restrictions on the type of activities younger farm workers would be allowed to perform and would limit the ability of the Cooperative Extension Service and vocational education programs, like those operated by 4-H, FFA and local school districts, to offer training to rural youth.
"Our biggest concern is that Washington bureaucrats are either unaware or are simply ignoring generations of tradition,” said Steve Baccus, a grain farmer from Ottawa County, Kansas, who serves as president of Kansas Farm Bureau. “Our farms are not sweatshops where young people are taken advantage of. Our farms are where we teach them about a work ethic and responsibility."
"In towns from coast to coast, consumers enjoy a safe and affordable food supply due to the efficiency and performance of America's family farmers, but the Department of Labor’s proposed regulations threaten the future of our industry,” said American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman. “In addition to being the economic backbone of so many of America’s towns, the traditions and the work ethic associated with growing up on a family farm are worth preserving, and the American Farm Bureau Federation appreciates Sens. Moran and Nelson for taking the lead on this important issue."
Before making such drastic changes to farm labor rules, the Department should identify reliable evidence and data that shows a need for these changes. But the Department of Labor admits it lacks the data to justify many of its suggested changes. Furthermore, according to the National Farm Medicine Center, youth-related injuries from farm accidents have declined by nearly 60 percent from 1998 to 2009.
In addition to Sens. Moran and Nelson, the letter is signed by U.S. Senators Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Chuck Grassley, (R-Iowa), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), John Boozman (R-Ark.), Dan Coats (R-Ind.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.), John Thune (R-S.D.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), David Vitter (R-La.), James Risch (R-ID), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.)
Sens. Moran and Nelson, along with 32 of their colleagues, previously wrote to Secretary Solis to request a 60-day extension of the comment period on the proposed changes to the Fair Labor Standard Act because the previous 60-day comment period fell during the fall harvest season. In response, the Department extended the comment period by 30 days.
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