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The Beef Angle

Vilsack Whitewashes Farm Youth Labor Regs.

Ag Secretary misleads public by covering for Department of Labor

The Feds are apparently worried they’ve offended rural America.

The Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture took to the department’s blog this week to defend his comrades in the federal regulatory regime by “clarifying” the Department of Labor’s proposed rule updating the regulations governing how, when, where and what children can do in the employ of farm or agribusiness enterprises.

By way of background, I’ll point you to this piece from our sister publication Feedstuffs, as well as this commentary at the Feedstuffs blog from Nebraska agricultural educator Kurt VanDeWalle. Jacqui Fatka’s report at Feedstuffs followed a pair of stories I drafted on behalf of Ohio State University Extension’s Ag Safety & Health Program, which you can read here and here.

As Jacqui and I learned from Dee Jepsen, OSU’s Ag Safety & Health program leader, the proposed regulations may not be as insignificant as the Secretary of Agriculture suggests.

“Statistics show that while only 4% of working youth are in the agriculture sector, 40% of fatalities of working kids are associated with machines, equipment, or facilities related to agriculture,” Tom Vilsack wrote. “That’s way too high. We don’t want to blur the line between teaching kids about a good day’s hard work, and putting them in situations more safely handled by adults.”

I doubt many, if any, of us would disagree that farm safety is of paramount concern, particularly as it deals with young people. We all feel a certain responsibility to protect the next generation, and farm operators, in my experience, are especially conscientious of that nature of their work, and the potential pitfalls incumbent in food production.

And yet, as Jepsen pointed out, the DOL regulations appear to be a bit more sweeping than just shoring up concerns over youth safety…

“They've expanded [the rule] to say that students can't work with any animal husbandry practice like breeding, branding, dehorning or treating sick animals," she said. "They aren't allowed to catch chickens in preparation for market, and they can't herd animals in confined spaces or on horseback or using ATVs or other motorized vehicles.”

Concerns over the breadth and depth of U.S. DOL intervention in farm kids working on the farm prompted several agricultural advocacy organizations and Members of Congress to petition the department to delay publishing the final rule. Indeed, the department extended the public comment period to receive feedback from the rural community, and from all indications, the reaction was strong.

The issue at hand, really, is the most important rule of regulatory government: if something is not explicitly excluded, it is implicitly included. Secretary Vilsack is willfully ignoring that rule in attempting to cover for his colleagues at Labor.

From the Secretary’s post at the USDA blog:
First, it is important to know that DOL is not proposing any changes to how a son or daughter can help on their family farm. There is nothing in the proposed rule that affects the ability of parents and families to assign chores and tasks to their children. Further, the proposed rule respects the various ways that farms are structured in rural America, including partnerships and LLC’s. DOL is looking at possible approaches to simply protect the safety of children hired to work on a farm.

While the first part of Vilsack’s assertion may be correct, about parents giving their kids after-school farm chores, the second notion regarding farm business ownership is a clear overstatement. The regulations as proposed do not exempt the varying incorporated or limited liability forms of structure a farm business might employ for tax or other legal purposes.

From Feedstuffs:

The kinds of family farms and legal structure of farms have changed drastically in the past 50 years; the exemption is not -- and should not be -- implied to be a "family farm" exemption, Jepsen warned.

"This is an area that could use additional clarification and possible changes to reflect the types of farms (on which) teens are working. This is not currently proposed to be changed, but maybe this is an area where further discussion is needed so that children working for uncles, grandparents and other family members understand that they are not in a 'family farm' exemption status," she said.

Jepsen gave the example that if two brothers farm together and have formed a limited liability company, a child no longer meets the exemption because the farm has a different structure. The individual could also be taking directives from another family partner, which doesn't qualify under the exemption.

The Secretary of Agriculture knows that the DOL fiasco is another black eye to the Obama administration in the eyes of rural America, and Vilsack, as the President’s go-to guy on all things rural America, is compelled to put a good face on an ugly situation.

With umpteen stories and posts on websites, in the press, and across Facebook and Twitter, DOL has more than a little egg on its face at the moment. Rural America isn’t happy that Washington wants to keep kids off of hay wagons and out of pastures after school and every summer.

I have one other problem with the Secretary’s commentary on the issue: the notion that publishing a proposed rule is the way to “start a conversation about how to keeps kids out of harm’s way.” Proposing a sweeping federal regulation is no way to open a dialogue, as though we were all sitting around the kitchen table discussing some harebrained idea that happened to come up over supper.

This isn’t the first time such a situation has cropped up, either. From the GIPSA competition rule, to the EPA dust regulations, to the rumors about DOT interdiction in on-farm CDL requirement, to this latest dustup over child labor, the Obama Administration is earning (perhaps deservedly) a reputation both for continually sticking its nose squarely in the middle of the main business of flyover country, and apparently for adopting a “ready, fire, aim” attitude toward the regulatory process.

As the Department of Labor evaluates the hundreds upon hundreds of comments received on their proposed rules, here’s hoping Secretary Vilsack, the rural interests in Congress, and the voice of the American farmer are heard loud and clear.

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