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Heat from farmers results in rethinking of youth labor limits

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Bowing to an angry backlash from agriculture groups and family farmers across the country, the Obama administration Wednesday said it would scale back proposed new rules that would have sharply limited the amount of work young people can do on farms.

Communities across the rural heartland had attacked the rules, saying they threatened a traditional way of life and could undermine the viability of many family farming operations.

The Labor Department announced Wednesday it would "repropose" the new regulations, allowing for more public comment on whether children could engage in farm jobs, including working with livestock and equipment.

Department officials said they were seeking a balance between protecting child workers in hazardous conditions and "respecting rural traditions."

The "parental exemption" rule, which is covered by the department's Wage and Hour Division, sets the rules on which children may be allowed to work on family farms.

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 change sparked outrage last fall, particularly across the Midwest, where such summer jobs as corn-detasseling, where teens hand-strip the tops off of stalks to help cross-pollinate future crops, has long been seen as a way for teens to make some spending money and to forge a strong work ethic.

"It's a positive step," said Paul Schlegel, director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau of the modifications. "We felt that what they were doing was wholly inconsistent with the way the law had been interpreted for decades."

Paul Zimmerman, executive director of governmental relations for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, also welcomed the announcement, but said his group still was wary of what the final rules could entail.

The Labor Department move "does not resolve the long list of concerns that our organization has with the entire rule package," Mr. Zimmerman said in a statement.

The Farm Bureau led a coalition of more than 70 agriculture organizations that pressured the Labor Department to reconsider what would be the first major rewrite of farm labor standards since the 1970s.

Mr. Schlegel said the backlash against the initial proposal was significant from farm families across the nation, many of whom were protecting a way of life.

"There was a great deal of anxiety and concern when these changes were first announced," he said. "The way they were narrowing their interpretation of the law to the point that ... there was a real question of whether any children could grow up working on the family farm. In a lot of ways, it was going to be a real challenge for people to handle the values they wanted to instill in their children."

The Labor Department said in a statement that revisions to the child labor laws will be published for public comment by early summer. It had said that it was updating its regulations based on studies that had shown youth were more likely to be killed doing agriculture jobs than work in all other industries combined.

Two Illinois girls, Hannah Kendall and Jade Garza, both 14, were detasseling corn last summer when they were electrocuted after they stepped into a puddle apparently charged from a nearby irrigation system, sparking safety concerns. A federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation into their deaths concluded last week without issuing citations to R&J Enterprises of Illinois Inc., which was a subcontractor for Monsanto.

The new rules would ban power-driven equipment use by children younger than 16 as well as keep those younger than 18 from work in stockyards, grain bins and feed lots.

More than 30 lawmakers from farm states had called on the department to rescind the rules, warning they would have a negative impact on rural employers and interfere with parents' ability to train the next generation of farmers.

Sen. Jerry Moran, Kansas Republican, called the decision Wednesday "promising news" but said the overall proposal remains "a threat to the future of agriculture."

He said the new rules still would prohibit children from performing common farm tasks like rounding up cattle on horseback, operating a tractor, or cleaning out stalls with a shovel and wheelbarrow.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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