By Zeke Campfield
Oklahoma lawmakers and agriculture leaders are praising a decision by the Obama administration to back off plans that would keep children from doing the most dangerous farm jobs.
Under pressure from farm groups and lawmakers from rural states, the U.S. Labor Department said it is withdrawing proposed rules that would ban children younger than 16 from using most power-driven farm equipment, including tractors.
The rules also would have prevented those younger than 18 from working in feed lots, grain silos and stockyards.
Jack Staats, supervisor of agriculture education for Oklahoma and state adviser to the National FFA Organization, said Thursday's late decision was an "intelligent" one that will help preserve an economic base for rural communities and families.
He said the proposed rules would have compounded a farm labor shortage in rural Oklahoma and kept a lot of teenagers from contributing to their family income.
"We were scared to death," Staats said Friday. "We have young people involved in every level, from harvesting wheat to baling hay to showing a steer. If we couldn't work with them if they were under 16 years of age, that would really have a tremendous impact on our programs as far as what we're able to teach young people."
The plan specifically excluded children who work on their parents' farms.
But it still became a popular political target for farmers and Republicans, who called it an impractical, heavy-handed regulation that ignored the reality of small farms.
"I am pleased that common sense finally prevailed and the Department of Labor withdrew its burdensome, misguided proposed rule," said Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Cheyenne, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. "This proposed rule created great angst in the countryside about the impact it would have had on the future of the family farm."
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, said family farms are a "vital part of our nation's economy, and they are the bedrock of rural American values and qualities like hard work, determination and ingenuity."
"I am glad this ridiculous attempt to penalize those family farms and what they represent has been stopped, and I will continue to fight to prevent this and the other over-regulation coming from President Obama," Inhofe said.
Oklahoma Labor Commissioner Mark Costello, who asked U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis in 2011 to "stand down" on implementing the new rules, said Thursday's decision was a "short-term victory for the family farm."
"The Obama administration has lost this battle for today," Costello said. "Obama is currently more concerned about the loss of the agricultural swing states, but if he is re-elected, we can anticipate a continued assault on the family farm."
Child labor is concern
Child labor groups say they are stunned and disappointed that President Barack Obama's administration is backing off its plans.
Reid Maki, coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition, said the Labor Department's decision to withdraw the proposed rules means more children will die in farm accidents that could have been prevented.
Three-quarters of working children younger than 16 who died of work-related injuries in 2010 were in agriculture, according to the Child Labor Coalition.
"There was tremendous heat, and I don't think it helped that it was an election year," Maki said.
"A lot of conservatives made a lot of political hay out of this issue."
Move was surprise
The surprise move comes just two months after the Labor Department modified the rule in a bid to satisfy opponents.
The agency made clear it would exempt children who worked on farms owned or operated by their parents, even if the ownership was part of a complex partnership or corporate agreement.
That didn't appease farm groups such as e the American Farm Bureau Federation, which complained the rules would upset traditions in which many children work on farms owned by uncles, grandparents and other relatives to reduce costs and learn how a farm operates.
New focus on safety
The Labor Department said Thursday it was responding to thousands of comments that expressed concern about the impact of the changes on small family-owned farms.
"The Obama administration is firmly committed to promoting family farmers and respecting the rural way of life, especially the role that parents and other family members play in passing those traditions down through the generations," the agency said in a statement.
The agency said it would work with rural stakeholders, including the Farm Bureau, the National Farmers Union and 4-H, to develop an educational program to reduce accidents to young workers.