WASHINGTON — Facing pressure from Congress, the Obama administration has made clear it has no intention of increasing workplace regulations for the country's smallest farms.
In a letter to members of Congress dated Feb. 10, a senior official with the U.S. Department of Labor wrote that the agency was not trying to circumvent Congress and conduct inspections of small farming operations with fewer than 10 employees.
Brian V. Kennedy, an assistant secretary at the Department of Labor, wrote that the federal agency overseeing workplace safety had also withdrawn a contentious memorandum that many members of Congress, including members of North Dakota's congressional delegation, said opened the door for Occupation Safety and Health Administration regulating small, mostly family-run operations.
Congress has categorically forbidden OSHA from regulating small farms since 1976. The Department of Labor, which oversees OSHA, said the 2011 memorandum was never intended to change that.
Kennedy's letter indicates the agency did feel some need to clarify its policies, however. It came after months of congressional lobbying on the issue which included three separate letters from Congress.
"The June 28, 2011 memorandum was intended to provide clarification and not to change OSHA's longstanding policies and proper authority," wrote Kennedy, the assistant secretary for congressional and intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Labor.
North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer was among those pressing hardest for clarification. He said the letter made "cautiously optimistic."
"The removal of the misguided memo is a good step, but farmers need reassurance they will not be targeted by more rogue regulation attempts in the future," the Republican said.
Cramer added in a statement that he hoped "the agencies involved realize the seriousness of their mistake and its implications for our food supply and the people who work every day to produce it."
Kennedy justified the 2011 memorandum as an attempt to deal with a rash of accidental grain bin deaths. He said the goal was never to increase government regulation.
Removing the memorandum was the easiest way to make that point clear, Kennedy said, and OSHA and the Department of Labor are already working with the Department of Agriculture on new, more acceptable language.
Kennedy's letter came after three separate groups of lawmakers sought clarification on the issue and warned that no changes should be made to policies without congressional action to back it up. A group of senators wrote the department of labor, followed by more than 80 house members as well as members of the House Education and Workforce Committee.
Kennedy's letter was addressed to the House Education and Workforce Committee.