The federal government has temporarily backed off from stricter enforcement of labor rules that agricultural groups feared would prevent children from working on family farms.
The U.S. Labor Department announced Feb. 1 that revisions to the "parental exemption" from restrictions on agricultural child labor will be postponed and proposed again this summer.
In September 2011, the agency said it planned to update child labor regulations to level the playing field between farming and other industries.
The proposal would have allowed farms to employ children younger than 16 without restriction, but only if the operation was owned solely by the parents or guardians.
Farm groups worried this interpretation would prohibit farms that have been structured as partnerships or corporations for legal and tax purposes to employ the offspring of their owners.
A Labor Department official said the agency "will revert to an earlier enforcement practice," allowing the exemption to be construed more broadly for now.
Under that interpretation, children can work for farms if their parents own a substantial stake in the company or serve as its corporate officers. The more expansive parental exemption will only be in place until the agency finalizes the revisions.
"We're not guaranteeing anything that is going to be in the re-proposed rule," said the unnamed Labor Department official during a press conference.
However, the agency will take grower comments into account when altering the exemption and it's unlikely the rule will be interpreted more strictly than previously proposed, the official said.
Agricultural groups welcomed the announcement, though they remained skeptical of the ultimate outcome.
Reading between the lines, the Labor Department doesn't seem to have actually recanted its previous position that the agriculture industry is overreacting to the revisions, said Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers.
"I still have in the back of my mind that they just think they need to educate us about what they're trying to do," he said.
Even so, the agency's announcement at least buys parents some time so they don't have to worry about new labor restrictions for their children this spring, Gasperini said. "It is encouraging and it's nice to see the agency listens."
The Labor Department's position on the parental exemption remains confusing, since the agency previously said the narrower interpretation was required by federal law, said Paul Schlegel, director of the energy and environmental policy team for American Farm Bureau Federation.
"There's an inconsistency somewhere," Schlegel said, noting that the agency's shifting position raises questions about how the exemption will end up being reinterpreted.
"It's a positive step, but there are still problems with the rest of the rule," he said. "I guess this is better than nothing."
Schlegel said he would prefer if the Labor Department completely withdrew the proposed changes.
The agency is moving forward with the rule-making process for remaining labor regulation changes, which will apply to children who don't work for their parents, the agency official said.
The agriculture industry is troubled by many of those revisions, such as the prohibition against children younger than 16 working cattle on horseback, Schlegel said.
The rules also ban children under 16 from using equipment that's not powered by either hand or foot-which could technically prevent children from using flashlights or water hoses, he said. "That would be too hazardous, which is nonsense."
SOURCE: Mateusz Perkowski, Capitol Press