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Consumer Reports

Congress seeks to amend labor laws for Amish youth | (KRT) PARADISE, Pa. The whine of blades biting into wood pierces the air as rough-hewn logs stacked on the muddy ground wait to be fed into the maw of the sawmill. Men in Amish dress - black trousers, suspenders, straw hats - are stacking boards that supply woodshops throughout Lancaster County.

Hardly your typical crime scene.

Yet here and at and scores of other Amish-run sawmills and woodshops, federal labor laws are being broken when teenagers are put to work. The U.S. Department of Labor has fined Amish businessmen $10,000 or more for the violations, threatening the viability of their enterprises.

Legislation introduced by Rep. Joseph R. Pitts, R-Pa., seeks to amend the 65-year-old Fair Labor Standards Act to permit Amish teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18 to work in businesses where machinery is used to process wood products.

Under the bill, the teenagers would only be allowed to do certain jobs, would not be allowed to assist in the operation of power-driven woodworking machines and would have to wear protective equipment.

Similar legislation passed the Republican-controlled House in 1998 and 1999. Both times, the formerly Democratic-led Senate blocked it. This bill has attracted the support of Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who has introduced a companion measure. A House committee heard testimony on the bill last week.

As many as 18,000 Old Order Amish reside in Pitts' Lancaster district. One mill operator was fined $10,000 for allowing his 15-year-old daughter to operate a cash register in a building that housed power-driven tools, according to the congressman.

Amish businessman William Burkholder, who has operated CB Hardwoods sawmill near Erie, Pa., since 1980, said in an interview that he was fined $20,300 for allowing the teenage children of employees to pile lumber on a slow-moving grading machine.

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"Them boys can do it a lot easier than I can," said Burkholder, who was able to get the fine cut in half.

While they continue to enforce the law, a labor official said that most of the fines were levied in the mid-to-late 1990s and none in the last three years.

"Changing the law is within the purview of Congress," said Victoria Lipnic, an assistant secretary of labor who visited two Lancaster woodshops last spring. "My job is to enforce the law that's on the books."

Amish children are excused from compulsory education after the eighth grade and permitted to engage in vocational work, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

Many Amish teenagers work on family farms, but declining profitability and availability of farmland has driven more Amish to woodworking trades, making furniture, sheds and gazebos. The Fair Labor Standards Act regulates the employment of youth in sawmills.

Amish communities exist in 22 states.

In previous years, opposition by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., as chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has effectively killed the bill. Kennedy worried there was no way to ensure the safety of Amish youth in places where heavy machinery is used.

"Sen. Kennedy has concerns about revisiting longstanding rules designed to protect America's youth from unsafe and dangerous conditions in the workplace," said his spokesman, Jim Manley.

The bill's supporters are attempting to assuage those concerns.

"This is an issue of freedom of religion, where the Amish prefer to educate their children aside from the public schools, which is permitted, and part of that process for teenagers is to work in the lumber mills," said Specter. The senator said he believed the legislation would be passed during this session.

The owner of the sawmill in the Paradise area, who refused to be identified for fear of being targeted by labor officials, said he has employed workers below the age of 18, including his own children and those of close relatives.

"It's hard to be law-abiding citizens when we have youth that want to work and we can't allow them to work," said the sawmill owner as he sat in a weather-beaten shed decorated with a clock made of a sawmill blade. "None of us would deliberately be putting our children in harm's way."

In Quarryville, Pa., the proprietor of Country Value Woodworks, Elam Esh, said that the Amish population in Lancaster is increasing and farmland is not. Woodworking is the trade that he intends to teach his four children.

"When my children are old enough to work," Esh said, "no one should tell me that I can't teach them the profession that I've chosen."

Esh manufactures furniture and sells it to stores. Because the Amish do not use electricity, his woodworking machines are run by diesel engines. He stressed the Amish credo of learning by doing and said it was important for children to begin learning as teenagers.

"We're not trying to run sweatshops," he said. "It's part of our education process."

Esh said he himself had worked before he was 18 in the woodshop he founded. During a visit to his shop, Specter recalled working in his father's salvage yard "when he was 13 or 14," said Esh.

"It's not so much being able to employ minors as teaching my children the trade I've established," Esh explained. Why teach them farming since he cannot provide a farm for them? he wondered.

Asked if he thought the Amish were entitled to be exempt from some federal regulations, Esh said it was not an issue of their own creation.

"The law was made based on your lifestyle - not ours," he said. "We're just asking to be allowed to live the way we've been taught is right."

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services