By Tim Leeds 

Lawmakers comment on child farm labor exemptions


Montana's federal lawmakers were quick to comment Wednesday on an announcement from the U. S. Department of Labor that it would broaden exemptions on regulations governing child labor on agricultural operations, with the general tone that more needs to be done.

"I'm glad to see the Labor Department has agreed to take a closer look, but these types of decisions should be made by families, not federal agencies, " Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who is helping draft the next Farm Bill as a senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in a release Wednesday.

While the bill specified that the bans would not apply to children working on family farms, Baucus and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont. — who is facing Tester in this year's Senate race — have said it could have major impacts.

Provisions of the proposed rules include prohibiting any children younger than 18 from working at a job storing, transporting or marketing of crops, including in grain elevators, grain bins, silos, feed lots, stockyards and livestock exchanges and no one younger than 16 can work 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.

After members of Congress including Baucus, Tester and Rehberg sent letters asking that the 60-day comment period on the proposed rules be extended, Labor moved the deadline for accepting comments to Dec. 1. More than 18,000 comments were made on the proposed regulations.

The announcement Wednesday said the exemptions from the regulations will be expanded to include children whose parents are part-owners or operators of farms, or have a substantial interest in a farm partnership or corporation.

The rule's original language exempted youths only on farms wholly owned or operated by their parents, but did not include thousands of farms owned by closely held corporations or partnerships of family members and other relatives.

The Department of Labor announcement says the department will propose the modified rules this summer and offer a separate comment period on those changes. The agency will continue to review the comments it has already received.

Tester also said more needs to be done to protect family farming.

"The Labor Department clearly didn't get the whole message from Montana's farmers and ranchers, " he said in a release Wednesday. "Today's announcement doesn't go far enough toward finding a solution that safeguards Montana's family farms and ranches for decades to come. I will keep pushing for a real, common-sense solution and I encourage all Montanans to continue sharing their thoughts. "

Rehberg used even stronger language, and said in a release that he will be asking a Department of Labor official about the regulations in a hearing today.

"It's good to see the Department of Labor finally acknowledge that there are some problems with this regulation, even if they continue to ignore other big issues. Frankly, though, this change isn't enough. Not even close, " Rehberg said in his release Wednesday. "When I have the chance to talk to (Deputy Administrator of the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division) Nancy Leppink at tomorrow's hearing, I'll make sure she understands that this rule doesn't work for rural states like Montana. "

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis issued a statement saying her agency would work with the Agriculture Department to ensure that the rules reflect the concerns of rural communities.

"The Department of Labor appreciates and respects the role of parents in raising their children and assigning tasks and chores to their children on farms," Solis said in the statement.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.


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