WASHINGTON -- Republicans have stepped up their efforts to block new rules from the Obama administration that would limit the work kids can do on farms, getting a boost from a small handful of Democrats who say they're opposing the regulations in the name of family farmers.
GOP members of both the House and Senate introduced bills this month that would preempt regulations proposed by the Labor Department forbidding kids under 16 from doing certain agricultural duties deemed too dangerous. The Senate version quickly found a backer in Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), the first Democrat to sign on as co-sponsor. Tester and fellow Democratic Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) have joined 39 Senate Republicans in opposing the new rules.
Tester, a farmer, is in the midst of a tough re-election fight this year, facing an opponent, Montana rancher Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), who happens to be among the most outspoken critics of the new child labor rules. Like agriculture trade groups, Rehberg has cast the proposals as an intrusion on family farms and the rural American way of life, though the Labor Department has said children working on their parents' farms would continue to be exempted from safety rules.
Tester asked the Labor Department in December to reevaluate the rules, saying he was worried they could hurt family operations or impact 4-H programs. Tester has since asked the department to abandon the rules altogether. His office did not respond to requests for comment on the issue.
According to the Labor Department, the rules would prohibit kids from working in certain capacities for employers that aren't family. For instance, those under 16 could no longer handle tobacco crops, due to health concerns; drive tractors that don't come with rollover protections; or work inside grain silos and bins.
The proposed rules would not change a long-standing family-farm exemption that's been in place since 1966 and allows a child to do any kind of work on a farm owned by his or her parent, according to the Labor Department. Nor would it eliminate the 4-H programs that teach kids agricultural skills. Children 16 or older would still be allowed to work for any farmer in any capacity.
Nonetheless, many Republicans and some Democrats have said the provisions would hurt small family farms. Speaking in a hearing last month, Rehberg said the "urban" Labor Department is meddling in a rural industry it doesn't understand, and is "overstepping its boundaries" and "its knowledge base." Rehberg, who oversees funding for the Labor Department through his House subcommittee, has vowed to withhold funding in order to block the rules.
Child and worker safety advocates, including Human Rights Watch, note that the regulations for children working in agriculture haven’t been updated in 40 years. Many of the proposed changes considered by the Labor Department have been recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the federal agency that researches work-related safety.
Before undergoing a public-comment period, the proposed rules had been caught up in red tape at the White House for nine months, upsetting worker safety advocates who said the rules could have prevented fatalities. Last summer a group of occupational health experts sent the White House a letter urging the administration to finish its evaluation.
The Labor Department is still crafting the farm rules. If they aren't blocked by Congress, they still likely would not be enacted for months.