Cultivating Tobacco Harmful to Farm Kids? Labor Secretary Under Fire for ‘Overly Broad’ Regulations

By Matt Cover | March 15, 2012 | 9:06am EDT

U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis (AP File Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – Labor Secretary Hilda Solis faced congressional opposition Wednesday over the Obama administration’s proposed regulations that would curtail what chores children are allowed to do on their own family’s farm.

Among other things, the Labor Department wants to bar children under age 16 from participating in the cultivation, harvest and curing of tobacco; operating almost all “power-driven” equipment; and working with animals in feed lots, grain silos, stockyards, or livestock auctions.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) told Solis that the proposed regulations would change the way family farms work, preventing farm kids from learning their parents’ trade.

“This is an issue that fundamentally alters an historic and familiar relationship [that is] so important to America and particularly important to rural America,” Moran said during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing Wednesday.

Sen. Moran called the regulations "overly broad," giving a few examples:

"Regulations prohibiting a young person from working six feet off the ground mean that no child, no young person, is going to be in the cab of a tractor or a combine. And in fact, your rules suggest that a young person could not even use a power-driven screwdriver.”

Moran said in his view, “If the federal government can regulate the kind of relationship between parents and their children on their own family's farm, there is almost nothing off-limit” when it comes to government intrusion.

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Solis told Moran that she understands his concern. She said the notion that young people might be barred from using battery-powered screwdrivers was taken out of context and is "not what we're proposing."  Solis said the Labor Department "needs to do a better job of communicating if that's what's being said out there."

Solis also said her department is concerned about the safety of farm children because farm-related injuries remain relatively high:

“While I don’t have a problem with children working on their parents’ or relatives’ farms, [child safety] is a question that we’re going to be seeking comment on,” she told the subcommittee.

“I certainly personally agree that those [family farm labor] are things that should be allowed. But I do know that we have to protect and prevent any further injuries to young people that are working in settings that are not protected.”

Moran, however, said that by restricting what children can do – even on their own family farms – Solis and the Labor Department are depriving them of the chance to learn what farming is all about.

“Every parent wants to make certain that their child has the opportunity to grow up in a safe environment and have the opportunity to earn a living and learn a trade or a profession and pursue the American dream,” Moran said.

“Your rules – as proposed – change the way in which we’re going to have the opportunity for a young person to experience working on a farm, their own family’s or their neighbor’s. And we’re going to lose that opportunity for that young person to say, ‘Wow, when I grow up I want to be a farmer, I want to be a rancher.’”

As proposed, the new rules would prohibit workers under age 16 from:

-- Working in feed lots, grain silos, stockyards, or livestock auctions.

-- Participating in the cultivation or harvest of tobacco.

-- Handling animals and pesticides, working in timber operations, and transporting farm product raw materials.

-- Operating “almost all power-driven equipment.”

-- Using electronic devices – including communication devices – while operating power-driven equipment.

The regulations would exempt children working on farms owned by their parents – but not children working on farms owned by other relatives. (The latter provision is being reconsidered by the Labor Department.)

The department says it has received 10,000 comments on the proposed regulation, and Solis said the comments – as well as those of Sen. Moran -- will be taken into account:

“We haven’t updated the rule in 40 years, and the way business is done on farms has changed a bit, so we just want to make sure that we get it right,” she told the hearing.

Moran said he hopes the comments “will result in significant changes, if not withdrawal of the proposed rule." He said the number of comments "does highlight how the proposed rules are "so out of touch with farm families and youth in rural communities."

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