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CQ: GOP Appropriator Determined to Stop Proposed Revisions to Child Labor Law



GOP Appropriator Determined to Stop Proposed Revisions to Child Labor Law

By Ellyn Ferguson, CQ


A senior Republican appropriator on Thursday vowed to stop the Labor Department from revising agriculture-safety rules for child workers, despite the agency’s decision to reconsider a proposal that farmers and rural lawmakers said could adversely affect family operations.

“I can assure you, as chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, that you haven’t seen the last of this,” said Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont. “I will have a rider on my appropriations bill that I write in the House of Representatives that will keep you from implementing this rule. I know it will pass the House.”

The proposed rule would have limited the exemption to child labor laws in cases where children work for their parents in agriculture on farms wholly owned by those parents. Critics feared this could restrict those younger than 16 from working on the farms of relatives or neighbors.

Rehberg made his comments to Nancy J. Leppink, deputy administrator of the Labor Department’s Wage and House Division, at a hearing on the work rules held by the Small Business subcommittee on Agriculture, Energy and Trade.

Rehberg, who is running for the U.S. Senate, said the Labor Department’s proposals represented “the difference in philosophy between urban and rural. This is one of those situations where, I think, the Labor Department is overstepping its boundary, its knowledge base. Frankly, I think you’re sitting around watching reruns of ‘Blazing Saddles.’ ”

Rehberg said a modern livestock operation like his has equipment safe enough for a 5-year-old to operate. Farmers and ranchers want a safe environment for children, but they also want reasonable rules, he said.

Chairman Scott Tipton, R-Colo., welcomed Rehberg, who is not a committee member, to the dais as a fifth-generation rancher. More than 100 House and Senate members called for the Labor Department to modify or withdraw its proposals.

The agency had announced on Feb. 1 that it would pull and review the proposed change to a statutory exemption to child labor laws; the exemption allows children younger than 16 to work for their parents.

The department said it would move ahead with other proposed rules that would apply to non-family paid child workers. These hazardous occupation orders are backed by the Child Labor Coalition and the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, which say the changes are needed to keep young workers out of high-risk situations, such as the one in which two 17-year-old boys lost legs in a grain auger accident.

Committee member Judy Chu, D-Calif., said she was concerned about Labor Department data revealing that young agricultural workers are at higher risk for injury or death than young workers in all other industries combined.

Chu provided Leppink with an opportunity to explain why the Labor Department decided to try to align agricultural work safety rules with those that cover non-agricultural realms.

“From 2003 to 2010, 74 percent of children under the age of 15 who died on the job were employed in agriculture,” Leppink said. “This regulation only targets the very youngest, and it only targets those jobs that are the most hazardous. We are not prohibiting parents from employing their child. We are not prohibiting children from doing their chores. We are not prohibiting children participating in 4-H.”

Other committee members were not convinced.

Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, R-Md., drew from his experience of growing up and raising his children on a farm. Farm work, he said, gives children a work ethic and responsibilities.

Bartlett said he generally opposed regulations because he finds them impractical or excessive. The Labor Department’s proposed child-worker rules were both, he said. Parents, he said, will keep their children safe.

“Can’t you find something more productive to do than to hassle our farmers?” he asked.

“I would like to think I am protecting children,” Leppink responded.

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