WASHINGTON - The Obama administration's move to scrap a plan that would prevent some children from working in dangerous farm jobs drew sharp rebukes Friday from child welfare advocates who claim the president caved to election-year pressure from farmers and Republicans.
The Labor Department spent more than a year working on the proposal to ban children younger than 16 from using power-driven farm equipment - including tractors - and prevent those under 18 from working in grain silos, feed lots, and stockyards.
Labor officials tried to avoid controversy by excluding children who worked on their parents' farms. But the proposal became a popular political target for Republicans who called it an impractical, heavy-handed regulation that ignored the reality of small farms.
Reid Maki, coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition, said the Labor Department's sudden decision late Thursday to withdraw the proposed rules means more children will die in farm accidents that could have been prevented.
"There was tremendous heat, and I don't think it helped that it was an election year," Maki said. "A lot of conservatives made a lot of political hay out of this issue."
The goal was to protect children who are four times more likely to be killed while performing farm work than those in all other industries combined.
But the proposal was routinely mocked in rural states such as Kansas and Montana where farmers often have their kids do chores that can include operating heavy equipment.
Sen. Jerry Moran (R., Kan.), said the rules would threaten a way of life, even preventing kids from operating a battery-powered screwdriver or a pressurized garden hose.
"Those regulations were very specific, things that seemed very lacking in common sense and in many ways just crazy," Moran said Friday at a news conference in Topeka, Kan.
While the Labor Department repeatedly denied it would go that far, officials promised three months ago to modify the plan in a bid to mollify opponents. The agency made clear it would exempt children who worked on farms owned or operated by their parents, even if the ownership was part of a partnership or corporate deal.
That didn't appease groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation that complained the new prohibitions would upset traditions in which many children work on farms owned by uncles, grandparents, and other relatives to reduce costs and learn how a farm operates.
Farm state Democrats also expressed concerns, and Minnesota Sen. Al Franken called the withdrawal "a good outcome."
The Labor Department said it withdrew the proposal after getting thousands of comments of concern about the impact of the changes on small, family-owned farms. The agency said it would work with rural stakeholders, including the Farm Bureau, the National Farmers Union, and 4-H, to develop an educational program to reduce accidents to young workers.