WASHINGTON – Child labor groups say they are stunned and disappointed that the Obama administration is backing off a plan that would have prevented children from working on the most dangerous farm jobs.
Reid Maki, coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition, said the Labor Department's sudden decision late Thursday to withdraw the proposed rules means more children will die in farm accidents that could have been prevented.
"There was tremendous heat, and I don't think it helped that it was an election year," he said. "A lot of conservatives made a lot of political hay out of this issue."
Under pressure from farm groups and lawmakers from rural states, 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 prevent those younger than 18 from working in feed lots, grain silos and stockyards.
The plan specifically excluded children who work on farms owned or operated by their parents. But the proposal still became a popular political target for Republicans who called it an impractical, heavy-handed regulation that ignored the reality of small farms.
"It's good the Labor Department rethought the ridiculous regulations it was going to stick on farmers and their families," said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. "To even propose such regulations defies common sense and shows a real lack of understanding as to how the family farm works."
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 like the American Farm Bureau that complained it 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. 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.
Instead, the agency said it would work with rural stakeholders, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union and 4-H to develop an educational program to reduce accidents to young workers.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., a grain farmer known to till his fields on weekends away from Washington, had come out strongly against the proposed rule. The Democrat continued to criticize the Obama administration rule even after it was tempered, saying the Labor Department "clearly didn't get the whole message" from Montana's farmers and ranchers.
Tester, who is in a tough race for re-election, on Thursday praised the decision to withdraw the rule and said he would fight "any measure that threatens that heritage and our rural way of life."
The move disappointed child safety groups who said the rules represent long-overdue protections for children working for hire in farm communities. Three-quarters of working children under 16 who died of work-related injuries in 2010 were in agriculture, according to the Child Labor Coalition.
Associated Press writer Matt Gouras in Helena, Mont., contributed to this report.