By Amanda Costikyan Jones
MECHANICSVILLE – Like many Amish men, Ben runs a carpentry business. And, since Old Order Amish children do not attend school after age 14, he sometimes hires teen-age boys.
The Charles County man seemed a bit surprised by the notion that, legally, his workers must be 18 or older.
“I guess that’s not the way we do it,” said Ben, who asked that his last name not be used.
But the Amish way does not sit well with federal regulators, who have levied stiff fines against Amish in Pennsylvania who had teens working in their sawmills.
Now, a congressional committee has passed a bill that would let Amish youth work in wood-processing occupations from age 14 on, provided certain safeguards are in place.
The change is supported by Southern Maryland Amish like Ben and his neighbors, who say they would never endanger their children but that they want to hold on to their way of life.
“It’s a critical age for the youngsters,” said Joe Stoltzfus, an Amish man who owns and operates a sawmill in St. Mary’s County. “Learning by doing under their parents’ supervision seems like the logical way to go.”
Amish boys who have finished school have worked for their fathers or other members of the community for hundreds of years, mostly on farms, where children are legally permitted to work.
But as family farming has waned, more and more Amish have begun running sawmills and carpentry shops. And while Old Order Amish do not believe in having electricity in their homes, their woodworking operations can be equipped with power equipment.
Opponents of the plan to let Amish youth work in sawmills note that the wood-processing industry has a fatality rate nearly five times higher than the national average.
“We have serious concerns that (the bill) could … expose young workers to … hazardous workplace conditions,” said Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman in a letter on the bill.
Stoltzfus said the Amish take strict precautions with their children in the workplace. “We’re all safety-conscious and we try to address the safety issues,” he said.
He said the bill would help Southern Maryland’s Amish. State officials estimate there are 100 to 125 Amish families in St. Mary’s County and 40 to 50 in Charles County.
Stoltzfus was helping for the day at neighbor John Hertzler’s carpentry operation, where eight or 10 Amish men — with no teen-agers in evidence — were helping build a second room for one of their community’s schoolhouses.
Stoltzfus said the youngest of his own seven sons is now 18, and he has no underage workers at his sawmill. But he said he and most of his neighbors see nothing wrong with giving a teen-age boy a job, and many of them have done so in the past.
“If I did have (sons that age), I would try to give them jobs” at the sawmill, Stoltzfus said, although he said youths should be kept away from the most hazardous work.
Hertzler agreed, saying he does not have teen sons either but would put them to work in his shop if he did. “I wouldn’t hesitate,” he said.
But Hertzler and another neighbor, Israel Swarey, said they see a big difference between bringing their own sons to work and hiring someone else’s. Both said youths should not work outside their families until they are at least 16.
“A child like that, 14, 15, he’s liable to be more reckless,” said Swarey, who runs a sawmill nearby. “I’d rather not have a 14-year-old from somebody else on my place.”
His fear, he said, would be that someone else’s child might be hurt while working for him.
“I’d be scared,” Swarey said, looking up from the circular saw where he was cutting boards. “That’d eat you forever.”
The bill would not require that youths and their employers be from the same family. If the bill fails, Stoltzfus said the law should at least be changed so that Amish youth can “work for their own parents or brothers.”
Solomon, an Amish carpenter in Charles County, said his two sons, 17 and 13, work in his shop.
“The boys have to have something to do,” said Solomon who, like his neighbor Ben, did not want his last name used.
As Solomon spoke, geese, sheep and goats wandered curiously up to the edges of their pen in his front yard. A turkey passed within inches, unconcerned by the conversation.
At the end of the driveway stood a glass telephone booth, equipped with a Charles County yellow pages and hundreds of telephone numbers written meticulously on the walls.
Solomon said keeping teen-age workers from getting hurt is a simple matter. He is very cautious with his sons, letting the 13-year-old work only for an hour now and then doing jobs that are not dangerous.
“You have to use common sense,” he said. “I think if everybody used a little more common sense, we wouldn’t have this problem.
“As of now, we haven’t been bothered” by the Labor Department, he said. “If they come, they come.”