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Rehberg drops gauntlet on child farm labor

Montana's sole U. S. representative had a clear message to the U. S. Department of Labor about its proposed rules restricting children's work on farms and ranches: Not on my watch.

Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., was a guest at a hearing of a subcommittee of the House Committee on Small Business. He told the deputy administrator of Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division that he would use his position as the chair of the Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Service and Education to block funding for the proposed regulations in their current form.

"I'm just appalled. It really bugs me to read something like this and expect this one-size-fits all knowledge from Washington, D.C., to try and determine what is appropriate for agriculture within a state like Montana. It just baffles me …, " Rehberg told Deputy Administrator Nancy Leppink.

"I will do everything I possibly can to keep this regulation from ever being implemented as it is written, " he added.

The issue is an update on Department of Labor's rules on child labor, which includes major revisions in agricultural operations that would ban children from many common operations on farms and ranches.

The department announced last week that it was expanding its exemption of children working on their family operations to include other family operations including additional corporations and partnerships.

Leppink said in her opening statements in the House hearing that the department is listening to the comments coming in, and will continue to make modifications as appropriate.

She said the department respects the role of children on agricultural operations and the role of parents in ranging their children. But, she said, agriculture is the most dangerous sector in which children work, with four times the number of fatalities as in other industries. It is not uncommon to find farmers and ranchers illegally employing children and exposing them to dangers such as pesticides or dangerous equipment.

In the last four years, the department has investigated six cases of death or serious injuries on children working on farms or ranches, Leppink said.

"One child injured or killed is too many, " she said.

She added that children still would be allowed to be employed by people other than their families to do many common tasks on farms and ranches, and activities such as raising animals for 4-H or other organizations would not be impacted.

Subcommittee on Agriculture, Energy and Trade Chair Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Ohio, and ranking member Rep, Mark Critz, D-Penn., applauded the expansion of family exemptions but said much more needs to be done.

"It has often been said, but needs repeating here, farming is a profession learned by doing, and while school-based instruction is important, it can teach you a great deal, but there is no substitute for actual on-farm ranch experience …. " Tipton said in his opening statements. "I think we can all agree that hazards are present in agriculture and ensuring the safety of youth is a common goal, at the same time, through proper safety, training and supervision, those hazards can be eliminated or at least minimized. "

Critz said in his opening statements that farms do much more than feed people, they also teach skills and responsibility, turning youths into hardworking, trustworthy adults.

The ag producers also tend to focus on safety, both to protect their own families but also in the interest of their business, he said.

"With this in mind, it is unfortunate that the Department of Labor's proposed regulation on child labor in agriculture could undermine much of what makes family farms so special, " Critz said. "If enacted, the rule would equate agricultural labor with nonagricultural labor, something that makes no sense to anyone that has ever stepped foot in a rural comunity. "

Rehberg said he has taken the glamour out of his ranch near Billings, replacing roping and hot-iron branding with hydraulic squeeze gates and calf tables.

"You can't get hurt. It is impossible, " Rehberg said. "You could have a 5-year-old running it. "

He said, under the proposed regulations, children from the region of his ranch he commonly hires for simple jobs, like herding goats on a youth motorcycle or cleaning manure out of a barn, would be banned.

Until the department works with groups like the U. S. Department of Agriculture, Farm Bureau, Farm Federation and The Grange to come up with rules that work, Rehberg said, he will add riders to appropriations blocking the implementation of the regulations.

"If it's a hard-and-fast-rule that they cant work in a feedlot or they can't man a vaccination in a self-catching headgate, then it lacks common sense and I don't get it, " Rehberg said. "No, Mr. Chairman, I can assure you, as chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on labor, that you haven't seen the last of this. "


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