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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Romney Flubs Farmers Claim

Mitt Romney claims the Obama administration is telling farmers “what their 15-year-old sons and daughters can and can’t do on the family farm.” That’s not true. If anything, the Labor Department was considering telling farmers what their children can and cannot do on farms that others own or operate. And the department has since promised to weaken that language.

In an effort to strengthen child labor regulations, the Labor Department proposed controversial new language that would have allowed children under 16 to work only on farms owned or operated by their parents. But the department revoked the proposed wording after farmers said children wouldn’t be able to work on farms with complex ownership, which can involve multiple business partners and relatives. The Labor Department says it will account for various ownership structures in new language, which is yet to be released, for the longstanding “parental exemption” in child labor regulation.

This isn’t the first time Republican presidential candidates have spun the truth on agricultural issues. Herman Cain falsely claimed the Environmental Protection Agency planned to regulate farm dust. Rick Perry was wrong when he said the Obama administration wanted to require farmers to obtain a commercial driver’s license to ride tractors across public roads. Romney made the most recent claim during his victory speech after winning the Illinois Republican primary.

Romney, March 20: Under President Obama, bureaucrats …  even tell farmers what their 15-year-old sons and daughters can and can’t do on the family farm.

The Fair Labor Standards Act exempts children from child labor rules if they work on farms owned or operated by their parents or someone acting as their parent. And since 1966, the act has exempted children under 16 who are working on their parents’ farm who otherwise would be barred from certain hazardous farm jobs such as operating heavy machinery. The idea behind the act is that “a parent’s natural concern for his or her child’s well-being will serve to protect the child.”

In September, the Labor Department proposed updating its regulations to strengthen enforcement. The proposal would prohibit children from such work as handling pesticides and felling timber — but it wouldn’t apply to children working on their parents’ farms. But farmers were concerned with the proposal’s language, which said the parental exemption applied to parents or guardians who owned or operated the farm — as opposed to farms that are incorporated or part of a larger partnership involving several relatives.

Labor Department’s original proposed language: Application of the parental exemption in agriculture is limited to the employment of children exclusively by their parents or person(s) standing in place thereof on a farm owned or operated by the parent(s). Only the sole owner or operator of a farm is in a position to regulate the duties of his or her child and provide guidance.

In February, the Labor Department announced it would re-propose the parental exemption language, specifically addressing concerns over farm ownership.

Labor Department press release: Until the revised exemption is final, the Wage and Hour Division will apply the parental exemption to situations in which the parent or person standing in the place of a parent is a part owner of the farm, a partner in a partnership or an officer of a corporation that owns the farm if the ownership interest in the partnership or corporation is substantial.

The Labor Department’s decision failed to appease some farmers. Some critics say the proposal still threatens the jobs of thousands of teenagers who detassel corn during their summer vacations — on farms where their parents do not share a substantial stake in ownership. But that’s not the argument Romney is making. He claims the Obama administration is telling farmers what their children can and cannot do on the family farm. It is not.

Update, April 27: The Labor Department announced April 26 that it has formally withdrawn its proposal and instead will work with stakeholders “to develop an educational program to reduce accidents to young workers.”

We thank Al Cross, of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, who alerted us to Romney’s flub.

— Ben Finley