By Amanda Costikyan Jones
WASHINGTON – A House committee approved a bill Wednesday to exempt Amish teen-agers from a portion of federal child labor law, a move that could help Maryland’s Amish families protect their threatened way of life.
The proposal would let Amish youth between the ages of 14 and 18 hold jobs in Amish-run woodworking businesses, provided they are supervised and observe safety procedures.
Supporters said that as Amish are slowly forced out of their traditional farming way of life, they are moving into woodworking, and the change is needed to keep them from running afoul of the law.
Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Ind., said the bill succeeds in finding “common ground between a safe workplace and … the lifestyle and traditions and religious choices of the Amish people.”
But opponents expressed concerns about child safety, particularly in a dangerous field like sawmill work.
“Nobody in this country can hire anybody at 14 years of age,” said Rep. William Clay, D-Mo. He said the proposal “waives the basic law of the land … by allowing 14-year-olds to work.”
Historically, most Amish boys worked on family farms after graduating from the eighth grade, the highest level of schooling for Old Order Amish.
Federal law allows young people — Amish or not — to do farm work. But the decline of American family farms has forced many Amish men to turn to carpentry and sawmill work instead, and the law does not permit their teen sons to join them.
“There’s a lot of Amish that have sawmills …. (They) have found that successful because they can’t always farm,” said the Rev. William C. Lindholm, chairman of the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom in Livonia, Mich. “They want to be doing something that’s farm-related … and wood products are.”
But the U.S. Labor Department fined several Amish families in Pennsylvania after it found teens working in the families’ sawmills.
Maryland officials said they do not know of any Amish in the state who have been fined for violating child labor laws, but they agreed that the protections are needed here.
“I’m sure if this happened in Pennsylvania, there is a fear that it may happen in Maryland,” said state Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles County.
Middleton estimated that there are 40 to 50 Amish families in Charles County, many of whom do cabinetry and carpentry work, which are covered by the bill.
Middleton said he hired an Amish carpenter last year to build some sheds with help from a son who “was probably 14 years old.” The proposed change in the law would protect that family and others.
Maryland Agriculture Secretary Henry A. Virts, a former veterinarian in St. Mary’s County, estimated that there are 100 to 125 Amish families there.
“They like to be left alone; they don’t like to be controlled” by the government, said Virts, who added that Amish are “really wonderful people.”
State Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset County, said he would support a change in the labor laws to exempt Amish youth.
“We’ve recognized the Amish in the educational arena. We’ve recognized their differences,” said Stoltzfus, whose grandfather was Amish. “I think there’s been a lot of reasonable things that the governments have granted the Amish community.”
The bill, which passed the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on a voice vote Wednesday, now goes to the full House, which approved the bill in September. But the measure died in a Senate committee last fall amid concerns that it was unconstitutional.
The current bill is identical to the one that failed in the Senate, but House supporters said they are confident that the language is constitutional.
Lindholm, of the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom, said that without the change, some Amish youth could be deprived of the hands-on learning that is a vital part of their history.
Lindholm said lawmakers should consider “whether having these young men sit around and do nothing for a couple of years is the right way to go.”