Youth labor, immigration issues lead agenda

Issue Date: February 8, 2012
By Dave Kranz
California Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger, left, discusses immigration policy with Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, right, in Lungren’s Washington, D.C., office, as congressional aides Kevin Holsclaw and Sandra Wiseman listen.
Photo/Dave Kranz

Three dominant themes emerged as members of the California Farm Bureau Federation Board of Directors met with legislators and administration officials in Washington, D.C., last week:

  • Proposed changes to U.S. Department of Labor regulations regarding youth working on farms address only a portion of farmers' concerns with the rules.
  • Farm groups will continue to press Congress for immigration programs that address agricultural needs.
  • And both immigration reform and a scheduled rewrite of the federal farm bill could become enmeshed in election-year politics.

As it reviews 18,000 comments on a proposed rule to restrict the ability of farmers and ranchers to hire people younger than 18, the Labor Department announced midweek that it plans to issue a revised proposal for the "parental exemption" provisions of the rule. The department said it acted after hearing from farmers and ranchers, and from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, about the consequences of the proposed rule on family farms.

As originally proposed last autumn, farms would have been exempted from the rule's provisions only if wholly owned by the parents of the young people performing the work. During a conference call with reporters, a department official said the Labor Department would revert to previous enforcement practices, allowing an exemption when a farm is "substantially" owned by parents of the youth doing the work.

"It (the rule) no longer is requiring wholly owned and it clearly will allow for a variety of corporate structures and family owners of a farm, while still meeting the intent of Congress that the parent is in a unique role or position to look out for the welfare of the child," the Labor Department official said, adding that the new parental exemption language would be published for public comment by summer.

CFBF President Paul Wenger told White House and Labor Department officials that the proposed regulations place unnecessary restrictions on family farms and ranches.

"We want to make sure parents have the opportunity to include their children in farming activities," Wenger said. "No parent wants to put their children in jeopardy. We encourage you to give serious attention to the comments (about the rule) from agriculture."

CFBF Director of Labor Affairs Bryan Little noted that despite the planned changes to the parental exemption clause, "all the other things we found problematic about the regulations are still there."

Although it will accept new comments on the parental exemption rules, the Labor Department said it would review the previous comments on the other provisions, which include new restrictions on the type of activities that younger farm employees would be allowed to perform.

Farm Bureau leaders continue to press Congress for action to assure that adequate numbers of farm employees can qualify for legal immigration status. During meetings with congressional representatives and a key White House staffer on immigration policy, CFBF representatives stressed that any action requiring employers to check their employees' work status against the federal E-Verify database must include a means to assure a legal, stable work force for agriculture.

"First and foremost, we want to give people a chance to come out of the shadows," Wenger said, noting that increased attention to locally produced food has meant that more farmers throughout the country need a legal, mobile work force to harvest fresh, seasonal crops that are subject to spoilage.

The existing H-2A immigration program for agricultural workers remains too cumbersome to meet the needs of most farmers and employees involved in perishable crops, Farm Bureau representatives said.

Several elected leaders told the CFBF group that they did not expect Congress to act on significant immigration proposals in an election year, though Farm Bureau labor specialist Little pointed out that the last two comprehensive immigration bills were passed in 1986 and 1996—both election years.

Congress is also due for a rewrite of federal agricultural policy this year, but progress on a new farm bill might also be slowed by election-year politics.

In fact, some farm policy analysts have estimated the chances of Congress passing a farm bill this year at only about 20 percent, because of budget problems and political issues.

But congressional leaders said they plan to move forward. For example, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said he would push to finalize the farm bill this year.

"I want a farm bill as badly as you do, and I want a good farm bill as badly as you do. I also want a farm bill that will be good for the whole country," Lucas said.

CFBF leaders said their priorities in farm bill discussions included adequate funding for programs to address fruits, vegetables, nuts and other specialty crops; pest and disease prevention; research and technical assistance on food safety issues; and dairy programs that reflect feed costs in California.

The Farm Bureau leaders also urged congressional representatives to repeal or reform the federal estate tax, to ensure that family farms and ranches can be passed to future generations. A temporary estate tax-reform measure is due to expire at the end of the year.

(Dave Kranz is editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at Assistant Editor Christine Souza contributed to this story.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.