During a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the Department of Labor's Fiscal year 2013 budget proposal last week, Senator Jerry Moran, R-Kan., had the opportunity to question Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis on the Department of Labor's proposal to restrict activities for youth working on family farms and ranches and do away with 4-H and FFA programs.
Moran says the rules the Department is proposing deal in three broad areas. Those areas include student learner exemptions, which would replace 4-H and FFA programs with Department of Labor programs; hazardous occupations, which Moran says the regulation is overly broad; and a parental exemption. The parental exemption questions whether children can work on their own families' farms or not. The DOL is working on re-proposing that portion of the rule, which Moran says sends a message that everything is okay.
"But the fact that you would suggest rules that relate whether a farmer's own child at age 15 can work on their own farm suggests that input is needed," Moran said. "This is a major change in the way that we live our lives. As you talked about the need for youth employment, it is one of the few remaining opportunities for many rural youth in small towns across the country to find employment in the summer and throughout the school year."
If the federal government can regulate the relationship between parents and their children on their family farm then Moran says there's nothing off-limits in which the government can intrude on anyone's way of life.
Subcommittee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, says he realizes the Department of Labor must be careful to adhere to the administrative procedures act while engaged in rule making. He says the Secretary is taking the views and concerns of the ag community seriously as the DOL currently is reviewing more than 10,000 comments it has received on the proposed rule and is working with the USDA.
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis reiterates those facts and says she and her staff are willing to work with the Senators to explain where issues are, but better communication is needed.
"It is important for us to allow to have the ability to go through education programs, 4-H programs and I don't think this rule in any way will hinder that involvement," Solis said. "But we are concerned when there are fatalities, when we still see the second largest rate of fatalities occurring on farms. And while I don't have a problem with children working on their parent's or relative's farms, that is a question we are going to be seeking comment on."
Solis agrees that children working on their family farms should be allowed, but she says young people need to be better protected in those settings.
Moran says there should have been more outreach before the rule was proposed. He is troubled by the fact that where the DOL starts is so contrary to the way things are done.
"I'm hopeful that the comment period that you are now in will result in significant changes if not the withdrawal of the proposed rule," Moran said. "In fact we've had pages of folks who have contacted us with additional comments but the comment period has expired. It does highlight how the Department's initial announcement of proposed rules is so out of touch with farm families and youth in rural communities."