Some Senate Democrats are pushing the Biden administration to ban kids younger than 16 from working in tobacco fields, citing risks of harmful nicotine exposure to minors not even old enough to legally buy the product.
Five Democratic lawmakers, led by Senate Majority Whip
“We believe a new rulemaking effort that bans child labor on tobacco farms and enhances protections in existing Hazardous Occupations Orders is critical,” the letter says.
DOL’s Wage and Hour Division enforces limits on the types of job duties that minors can perform—like prohibitions on the use of certain farm machinery or meat slicers—through its Hazardous Occupation Orders. Those orders, which include a partial or total ban on the occupations or industries they cover, haven’t been updated since the 1970s.
The letter is the latest effort to pressure the DOL to update the orders, after the chief of the wage division said in a recent interview with Bloomberg Law that the agency didn’t have a planned rulemaking to revisit the orders.
Worker advocacy groups have also met with the Biden DOL at least four times in recent weeks urging the agency to beef up protections for children working in agriculture jobs.
Current federal labor standards allow minors who are at least 16 years old to perform any farm job without limits, even during school hours. Minors who are at least 14 may work outside school hours, but not perform work deemed hazardous by the labor secretary. Children working on farms owned or operated by their parents don’t have to follow those rules at all.
The Democrats’ letter notes that the tobacco industry has recognized the risks that such work can pose to children, pointing to a 2014 policy announced by tobacco industry associations to avoid hiring children under 16 on tobacco farms.
But that voluntary policy isn’t enough to ensure that children are protected in the tobacco industry, the lawmakers say.
“These commitments lack the enforcement mechanisms of regulations,” they wrote. “In addition, research has shown that the implementation of company policies is inconsistent, and found that some children under the age of sixteen have continued to work on tobacco farms even after these commitments were made.”
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