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Northwest Iowa Dairy Outlooks

A local discussion of current science and issues concerning dairying in northwest iowa

Back in October I talked about a Department of Labor (DOL) proposal that would hit at the heart of farms and ranches everywhere. However the Department of Labor seems to have taken a step back after a backlash of comments on the proposed rule. But the fight is far from over.

Iowa State University’s Roger McEowen, is director of the Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation, and he has been tracking the DOL’s proposed changes to its Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) since its announcement in September 2011. He says the DOL, in spite of having agreed to re-propose the “parental exemption” portion of the rule after the public comment period, has yet to commit itself to backing off of any of the other changes in the proposal.

“I think they were stung by the blowback on it to begin with,” McEowen says. “They don’t understand the application of these rules and why these issues are important to farmers and ranchers. But they did not shelve it. They are proceeding slowly and maybe more quietly. They haven’t announced they are going to change the proposal; they haven’t made any commitment to change anything.”

The proposed changes to the farm labor rules are long, and complex. They affect all hired farm workers, and make changes to the ag hazardous occupations (HOs) rules, as well as a new, non-ag HOs order that prevents any hired worker under the age of 18 from working in several settings the DOL considers dangerous. These settings include: feed lots, grain bins, grain elevators, silos, stockyards, livestock exchanges and auctions. To view details go to the CALT website at http://www.calt.iastate.edu.

According to the proposal as it currently reads, a child employed on his or her parent’s farm is exempt from the ag HOs unless they lose that status by working on a farm owned by a neighbor or non-parental relative. The proposal does not address the question of whether a child of parents who operate a farm that is owned by a legal entity qualifies for the exemption. In this case, McEowen says, the entity and not the parents technically employ the child.

For youth under the age of 16 and working on the farm of a family member (non-parent) or a neighbor, the proposal would essentially shift them into a category where they would not be allowed to do common farm tasks, such as operating a tractor or a hay mower or being in the pen or stall with certain farm animals. In the cattle industry, they would not be able to even assist in animal husbandry practices, branding, herding, castrating, dehorning. Essentially the line is drawn at anything the DOL feels would result in unpredictable animal behavior.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association reported that the Department of Labor received thousands of comments on the proposed rule and announced they would continue seeking input on the “parental exemption” language, and expect to re-propose a rule in early summer 2012.

Iowa’s McEowen says ranchers and farmers should not be lulled into complacency believing the issue is in their rearview mirrors. He urges producers to contact their state representatives, and be sure they are aware of the issue and understand its impact at the farm level.

Only Congress can really put the heat on the DOL. That’s what I’d recommend. Get in touch with your elected representative and help them understand the issue.

A spokesperson with the DOL could not be any more specific regarding a timeline for the re-proposal of its regulation interpreting the parental exemption, other than to say it would most likely take place early this summer. More than 18,000 comments were received on the proposed rule, and the DOL spokesperson said that makes it difficult to predict how long the process may take.

After the notice of proposed rulemaking is published, there will be a 60-day comment period on the new proposal.

Asked if the only portion of the regulation that might be changed was regarding the “parental exemption”, the spokesperson indicated this to be the case, citing an earlier press release that said the DOL would “re-propose the portion of its regulation on child labor in agriculture interpreting the ‘parental exemption’.” This would leave in place other changes to the proposal.

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