By Amanda Costikyan Jones
WASHINGTON – The House Tuesday passed a bill that would let Amish teen- agers work in sawmill and carpentry jobs, an exception to child labor laws that opponents said could endanger children.
“This bill permits 14-year-olds to work in sawmills, one of the most dangerous work sites in the country,” said Rep. Bill Clay, D-Mo. “(Teens’) inexperience, small size and lack of maturity can all lead to increased risk of accidents.”
But supporters called the bill a common-sense compromise.
“This legislation, in a common-sense and bipartisan manner, strikes (a balance) between … respecting the Amish for their cultural and religious differences and insisting on a safe and healthy work environment,” Rep. Tim J. Roemer, D-Ind., said during floor debate on the bill.
The measure would affect about 140 to 170 Amish families in St. Mary’s and Charles counties, many of whom operate sawmills and woodworking shops.
The bill passed the House on a voice vote and now heads to the Senate, which killed the same proposal last year. House and Senate staffers would not predict the bill’s chances in the Senate this time around, saying only that they look forward to working together on it.
The vote was welcomed by Herman Bontrager of the Michigan-based National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom.
“I certainly am pleased that legislation that will help religious minorities preserve their way of life is progressing,” said Bontrager, of Akron, Pa. “I think (the House has) shown that they’re able to be sensitive to minority groups, subgroups in our society, and find a compromise.”
Amish children do not attend school after the eighth grade. Traditionally, sons have worked on their parents’ farms after graduation, but the decline of family farming has led many Amish men to enter wood-processing occupations in recent years.
While farm work is legal for children under 18, Labor Department regulations ban minors from working in sawmills and most carpentry jobs. The bill to change the law was first introduced after three Amish sawmill owners in Pennsylvania were fined thousands of dollars each for child labor violations.
“This legislation comes only after (the Labor) Department has been unwilling or unable to eliminate conflicts between the current regulations and the Amish way of life,” Rep. William F. Goodling, R-Pa., said Tuesday.
The Labor Department did not comment on Tuesday’s vote. But in a letter last month to Goodling’s House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman said the department was “concerned that this proposal could lead to requests to open up other hazardous workplaces to child labor for select communities.”
The bill would change federal child labor law to allow anyone 14 or older who is “a member of a religious sect … whose established teachings do not permit formal education beyond the eighth grade, to be employed inside or outside places of business where machinery is used to process wood products,” subject to certain requirements.
Youths would have to be supervised by members of the same religious group, would not be allowed to operate power machinery and would have to be protected from flying debris, excessive noise and sawdust.
The bill’s supporters said those safety provisions go far enough to protect children whose parents are already apt to be cautious. “Who would care more about the well-being of Amish children than their parents?” Goodling asked.
But last year’s bill died in a Senate committee amid concerns that it was unconstitutional. Clay raised those same concerns during Tuesday’s debate.
“The First Amendment … forbids preferences for one religion over another,” he said.
House supporters said that they are confident that the language is constitutional and that, in any case, that issue is for the courts to decide.