Montana’s federal lawmakers said last week they are pleased that the U. S. Department of Labor has extended a comment period on some proposals that could have “unintended consequences” on family farms and ranches.
Department of Labor originally had set a Nov. 1 deadline for comments on the first major revision on child labor laws in agriculture operations in 40 years. Last week officials extended that deadline to Dec. 1.
Montana’s U. S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, both Democrats, and U. S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Republican, had called on Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to extend the comment period.
The revision would exclude children younger than 16 from being hired to perform many common tasks on farms and ranches, and children younger than 18 from some. The proposed regulations would still allow children to work on their own family farms.
“I'm pleased the Labor Department has extended the public comment period, and I hope Montana family farmers will get involved and share their comments and ideas, ” Baucus said this morning. “It's a busy time for our ag producers, and they deserve the time they need to review the proposed regulations which could have unintended and widespread consequences for Montana's family farms. The bottom line here is: Any regulation that impacts our rural families should be designed with their needs in mind. ”
The proposed regulations include prohibiting any children younger than 18 from working in storing, transporting or marketing of crops, including in grain elevators, grain bins, silos, feed lots, stockyards, livestock exchanges and livestock auctions and no one younger than 16 in any action causing pain to an animal, such as branding, castration or vaccination.
It would prohibit children younger than 18 from using electronic devices, including cellphones, while operating machinery, and would limit the ability of children younger than 16 from using most power-driven equipment.
Shawn Rismon, who farms north of Havre with his wife, Stacey, and their three sons, Kade, 16, Nate, 14, and Mason, 9, said operating the farm without the children would be very difficult.
“They’re our main helpers, and they love to do it. It would make it tough, ” Shawn Rismon said. “They enjoy doing it, and having that extra help on the farm helps. ”
They, like the lawmakers, fear that the rule would eventually ban their own children from farm work.
Tester and Rehberg — who are facing off in the 2012 Senate election — both said the timing of the Nov. 1 deadline made it difficult for farmers and ranchers to make comments.
“Government works best when decisions are based on good information, so I’m glad that the federal government is giving family farmers an opportunity to have a real say in the operation of their farms, ” Tester said in a release after the decision. “Hands-on farming helps teenagers get real work experience to build a strong work ethic. ”
Tester, a third-generation farmer from Big Sandy, said farmers must get the chance to make sure the rule keeps kids safe while not going too far in limiting farm production.
“Not only would this regulation, as currently drafted, have far-reaching effects on youth agricultural education programs, farms, ranches, and other agricultural business, it could greatly impact the structure of family farms and rural communities, ” said the letter to Solis that Tester and Baucus signed.
Rehberg said the timing was selected to limit input.
“The Department of Labor knew what it was doing when it picked the months around harvest, livestock shipping season and hunting season to ask for comments on a draconian new rule that's been in the works for two years, ” Rehberg said in a release after the extension was announced. “They were hoping to slip their out-of-touch rule through the cracks. We caught them red-handed, and now that they’ve extended the comment period, I think they’re going to get an earful from hardworking farmers and ranchers who have enough to worry about without federal bureaucrats imposing senseless rules from Washington.
“No one, particularly parents, want to put kids at risk, ” said Rehberg, who was one of 77 representatives who sent a letter to Solis about extending the comment period.
In a release announcing the proposals, Solis said protecting child workers is a primary goal of her department.
“Children employed in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable workers in America," she said in a release. "Ensuring their welfare is a priority of the department, and this proposal is another element of our comprehensive approach. ”
Ben Peterson, who farms north of Havre with his parents, Kim and Nola Peterson, said it is hard to say how his life would have been different if he could not have helped on the farm as a youth.
“I’ve always been a part of it. That’s a hard question to answer, ” he said, adding he believes there would “definitely be a lesser chance of coming back” to farm.
He said it probably would have made operating the farm much more difficult for his parents.
“You would need an extra hired hand you would need to pay, ” he said.
Kim Peterson said the farm probably could have continued without the help of his children, but it would not have been easy.
“I suppose you would have adjusted somehow, but it just seems to me its really difficult to get the people who have the experience to work on the farm, ” he said. “We hire quite a few students from (Montana State University) Northern. They’ve been really good, but a lot of them come from ag backgrounds. ”
He said all three of his children still help on the farm, and the careers his two daughters are in are related to it. Andee Peterson sells crop insurance for a local agency, and Casey is studying veterinary medicine.
“It tugs at them, ” Kim Peterson said.
Restricting children’s work in the industry would hurt the farmers and the industry itself, he added.
“The parents would lose out, but the kids would lose out because they wouldn’t be interested in coming back to agriculture, and how would we keep agriculture going? ” he asked.
The question should be one of parental control, rather than a federal regulation, he added.
“We don’t want more regulations we can’t enforce” and can’t pay for, Peterson said.
Rismon made similar comments. He said growing up working with his father, Murdy Rismon, is the main reason he is farming now.
“If my dad hadn’t … involved me, I don’t think those roots would have sunk in, ” he said. “They have to enjoy it. You cant overdo it … if they enjoy it, and they want to be there that’s how they make it work. ”
If the end result were to prohibit children working on their farms, it could end the tradition, he said.
“The family farms are struggling as it is to stay alive and keep the kids out here, ” Rismon said. “It would kill the family farm. ”
People can review the document listing the proposed regulations here (pdf).
Comment on proposed regulations:
People may submit comments, identified by RIN 1235-AA06, by either one of the following methods:
Electronic comments: through the Federal eRulemaking Portal: www.regulations.gov. Follow the instructions for submitting comments.
Mail: Wage and Hour Division, U.S. Department of Labor, Room S-3502, 200 Constitution Avenue, NW., Washington, DC 20210.
People should submit one copy of comments by only one method. All submissions received must include the agency name — Wage and Hour Division — and Regulatory Information Number for this rulemaking — 1235-AA06. All comments received will be posted without change to www.regulations.gov, including any personal information provided.