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Nebraska State Grange, ag groups object to labor changes

By Art Hovey, Lincoln, Nebraska Journal Star (12/5/11)

  DECEMBER 15, 2011 --

A Nebraska coalition of more than 20 members, including four state senators and several prominent agricultural associations, has filed written objections to proposed federal changes in child labor laws.

The letter of objection emerged as the public comment period on the U.S. Department of Labor initiative ended Thursday.

In the same time frame, a spokesman for the national nonprofit group Public Citizen questioned the validity of Nebraskans' concerns about the possible impact on summer detasseling jobs for thousands of teenagers.

"There's a lot of misinformation going around about what's actually in this proposal," said Josh Feldman of Public Citizen's Congress Watch division in Washington, D.C.

"None of the tasks involved in detasseling are tasks that are restricted by this regulation."

Feldman did acknowledge the existence of proposed language that would appear to ban those younger than 16 from doing arduous work in extreme temperatures.

The letter from the agricultural coalition, whose members include the Nebraska Cattlemen and the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation, doesn't mention detasseling specifically.

But it does call on the Labor Department to withdraw plans for the first changes in child labor regulations affecting agriculture since the 1970s.

"The proposed regulations demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of agriculture and the people whose livelihood stems from the industry," said the opposition group.

State Sens. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft, Tom Carlson of Holdrege, Deb Fischer of Valentine and Norm Wallman of Cortland were among others aligned behind the letter, as were the Nebraska Corn Growers, the Nebraska Pork Producers and the Nebraska State Grange.

The letter called on federal labor officials to "bring together a group of interested stakeholders, including agricultural producers, to discuss such an important issue -- safety."

Public Citizen's Feldman, however, described a safety update for teenagers working in farm settings as long overdue.

"And we see fatality rates for children working in agriculture that are six times higher than teenagers working in any other industry," he said. "That's not something to be proud of. That's something to address."

In a separate statement, Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry did specifically mention detasseling as an area of concern. Fortenberry referred to the Labor Department proposal as "this uninformed and unnecessary edict from Washington."

And Lisa McNeel, veteran supervisor of detasseling crews in the Lincoln area, said the absence of the word "detasseling" in regulation language doesn't satisfy her.

"It doesn't have to say detasseling," McNeel said. "It's just agriculture -- kids, youth and agriculture. It's just a very broad proposal, and detasseling would fall under that umbrella as it stands now."

Feldman was undeterred.

"I don't know if they've read it or not," he said, "but I challenge them to show me in the regulations that it affects detasseling or where the connection is -- because it's simply not there."

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