The Pander Games: Obama Administration Sells Out Kids Doing Dangerous Agricultural Work, Breaks Pledge to Ensure Welfare of Youngest Workers

by Rena Steinzor

Yesterday evening, when press coverage had ebbed for the day, the Department of Labor issued a short, four-paragraph press release announcing it was withdrawing a rule on child labor on farms. The withdrawal came after energetic attacks by the American Farm Bureau, Republicans in Congress, Sarah Palin, and—shockingly—Al Franken (D-MN).

Last year, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said: "Children employed in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable workers in America.” “Ensuring their welfare is a priority of the department, and this proposal is another element of our comprehensive approach."

The Administration pledged to protect young workers in dangerous jobs, and now they’ve thrown that pledge out the window.

Yesterday, the Administration said this:

“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 Obama administration is also deeply committed to listening and responding to what Americans across the country have to say about proposed rules and regulations.  As a result, the Department of Labor is announcing today the withdrawal of the proposed rule dealing with children under the age of 16 who work in agricultural vocations.”

Give that excuse to the families of Alex Pacas (19) and Wyatt Whitebread (14), who were sent into a grain elevator without required safety harnesses to “walk the corn,” breaking up clumps so the grain could be removed from the elevator efficiently.  The boys slipped into a hollow pocket, a common hazard in the industry, which is why the harnesses are required.  They were smothered to death.  Or we could ask the reaction of the families of another pair of boys, Tyler Zander and Bryce Gannon, both 17, whose legs got caught in a giant auger used to pull the grain into storage silos, causing grievous injuries. 

None of these children were working for mom and dad on the family farm that provides such a convenient shield for agribusiness to hide behind.  Instead, they were employed by the agribusinesses that produce 84 percent of the value of production nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.   These large-scale (annual income greater than $250,000) family and non-family farms account for 12 percent of some 2.2 million farms in the country.  Equally to the point, the proposed rule the Department of Labor sent out for comment clearly exempted circumstances where children were working for their parents or engaging in truly educational activities like 4H. In February, DOL announced that it would modify the “parental exemption” language and was seeking further comment; the Agency was going to exempt children working not just for parents but for an adult “standing in the place of a parent.”  

For all practical purposes, withdrawal of the regulations means that children under 16 can be legally employed by big corporations doing tasks that include a variety of life-threatening hazards.

Reaction from the agricultural community to President Obama’s about-face was ecstatic. The American Farm Bureau Federation gloated: “The Labor Department’s notification today that it is withdrawing proposed rules that would have prevented many young people from working in agriculture is the right decision for our nation’s family-based agriculture system. Farm Bureau appreciates the administration’s decision and efforts by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to listen to farmers, ranchers and other rural Americans. We also know that this would not have happened without the efforts of Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) and others in Congress, and we thank them for standing up for agriculture and the rural way of life.”  (Rep. Rehberg, who is challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, used a congressional hearing to complain that the proposed rule might prevent him from hiring his ten-year-old neighbor to herd his cashmere goats on a motorcycle.)

But Republicans were not the only reason the White House killed the rule.  Senator Al Franken (D-MN) said the withdrawal was “a good outcome.”  The Labor Department, he said, “realized they needed to be working with farm groups and not doing it so much as regulations as a safety program because, as I said, no one cares more about their kids' safety.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control’s Morbidity and Mortality Report issued in April 2010, “the greatest number of fatal injuries among younger workers occurred in the services (32 percent percent), construction (28 percent percent), wholesale and retail trade (10 percent), and agriculture (10 percent) industries.   Younger workers experienced the highest rates of fatal injury in mining (36.5 per 100,000 full-time equivalent), agriculture (21.3 per 100,000 FTE), and construction (10.9 per 100,000 FTE).”

I admit that I find the political calculus underlying these Pander Games confusing.  Granted, the Farm Bureau is capable of getting a lot of people in the Corn Belt riled up about this latest government "intrusion" on the "freedom" to have their kids help them around the homestead that has been in the family for generations.  But the rule did nothing of the sort. The argument was entirely disingenuous.  At some point, the President has to stand and deliver, explaining that regulations that protect children from gruesome injuries and death are not evidence of government run amok, but instead just plain common sense.  Killing the rule will never win him Farm Bureau financial support, it’s the wrong thing to do, and it offends all the voters who know kids who have died or suffered grievous injuries in agricultural work.



© 2009 The Center for Progressive Reform