W&WP February 2004
Amish Labor Law Gives Teens Rights
Amish teens are now able to do apprenticeships in woodworking shops, thanks to legislation co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA). Pitts says the law will save the Amish way of life.
By Susan Lorimor
The fourth time was the charm for U.S. Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA). His co-sponsored legislation, that will allow 14- to 17-year-old Amish youths to work in woodworking plants, recently passed the House and Senate, and became law.
Pitts had introduced the legislation three times before, beginning in 1998. The bill had passed the House in previous attempts, but not the Senate -until this year, when it was placed in a massive federal spending bill. Pitts' co-sponsor for the Amish labor bill was U.S. Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN). The bill was introduced into the Senate by Arlen Specter (R-PA).
Pitts says the bill, which amends the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, was necessary to his 18,000 Amish and Old Order Mennonite constituents. It will allow their children to "learn by doing" in woodworking shops, Pitts says.
Nationwide, there are more than 150,000 Amish in 25 states, predominately in Pennsylvania, Indiana and Ohio, the New York Times reported.
In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled in Wisconsin v. Yoder that the Amish have the right to stop their children's formal education at the eighth grade level. After that, the children learn trades. Typically, they work on farms, but as the availability of land decreases, the Amish have moved on to woodworking shops and sawmills. The FLSA had kept youths - anyone under the age of 18 - from legally working in those shops because of the machinery involved.
Pitts says his legislation will keep Amish teen woodworkers out of harm's way. Provisions are included to ensure they are supervised by adults and wear protective gear in shops.
In 2002, there were 10.1 recordable injuries per 100 full-time lumber and wood products manufacturing workers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. There were 9.9 recordable injuries per 100 full-time employees in the furniture and fixtures sector.
The Child Labor Coalition is concerned about the rates and safety of teens. It sent letters to the House and Senate, urging them not to allow the amendment.
"Supporters of the Amish exemption offered no data or analysis from occupational health and safety experts (at a recent congressional committee hearing on the matter) to confirm that the amendment will provide appropriate and adequate protection of youth from occupational injury," the CLC said. "This is troubling, for the primary considerations in judging the merits of this amendment must be youth safety based on scientific evidence and evaluation alone."
Pitts maintains the teens will be safe, and does not have plans to lobby for the rights of the non-Amish to work in their parents' shops.
"At this time, Congressman Pitts is only focused on the Amish in regards to allowing them to complete apprenticeships in woodworking shops," says Press Secretary Derek Karchner.
Pitts answers Wood & Wood Products' questions about the new law, and how it pertains to Amish youths.
Congressman Pitts, you have introduced the resolution to allow Amish teens to work in shops prior to this Congress. Legislation did not make it through both the House and Senate. What happened? What were the roadblocks its passage?
For several years we have worked hard to address concerns in the Senate regarding child safety. This year we have made substantial progress, and I am pleased to report that President Bush signed this bill into law on Friday, Jan. 23, 2004, as part of H.R 2673, the Omnibus Appropriations bill.
In the end, we did convince those opposed to the bill to drop their opposition to it. This legislation is a commonsense way to allow a religious minority to continue its way of life, while maintaining the integrity of safety laws.
Your constituents would greatly benefit from the resolution. How many Amish are in your district?
I have approximately 18,000 Amish and Old Order Mennonite constituents.
How did the fact that H.R. 1943 became part of an omnibus spending bill affect its status in the Senate and chances for approval?
In hindsight, I think it greatly improved its chances for approval. Again, we were making progress on getting the bill passed as a standalone piece of legislation. But we were even more pleased to see it as part of the omnibus.
Specifically, what provisions are in the legislation that would safeguard Amish teenagers from harm as they work in woodworking shop)?
First, it doesn't allow just any teenager to do an apprenticeship in a business where wood products are processed. It is specifically targeted to the Amish community and other religious sects who rely on these apprenticeships to train their children in the trade that will enable them to provide for their families.
The bill requires that an adult relative or an adult who is a member of the same religious sect or division supervise any teenager engaged in the apprenticeship. It also explicitly prohibits teenagers from operating, or assisting in the operation of, power-driven woodworking machines, and they must wear proper protective equipment while on the premises of these shops.
'Learning by doing' is an important facet of Amish life. Until now, 14- to 17-year-olds have not legally been allowed to 'learn' in woodworking shops. Yet, some teens have disobeyed the law for the sake of their religion, and shops have been heftily fined. How prevalent is this?
I have spoken with small business owners who have been fined upwards of $20,000 for having a 15-year-old young woman operating a cash register. These people do not ask for anything from the government and are just trying to make ends meet and teach their kids how to make a living. These fines threaten their ability to do business and provide for their families.
Amish teens have been forced to risk governmental punishment to live out their faith. How common has it been to find Amish youth in woodworking plants?
As a percentage of the total workforce, they are rare. Again we're not talking about youth operating machinery or anything like that. We're talking about teenagers being present at the business and learning the trade in a safe, controlled environment.
Congressman Pitts, in May 2003, you led Department of Labor officials through woodworking facilities in your district. Which shops did you visit, and what was the outcome? What did you hope would be the result?
We visited two shops in my district. The dialogue during the tour was beneficial and constructive. I received a better idea of what the Department of Labor needed from Congress to address this issue, and they got a better idea of the effects their regulations were having on this community.
What would you say to opponents like John Miller of Mansfield, OH, who was born and raised Amish, who said in a letter to Congress there was no way he would allow his children to work in a sawmill because of its inherent dangers?
Our children go public schools and during shop class they use all sorts of power tools, including table saws, to make projects. Often there is only one adult supervisor for a class of 25 or 30. But we don't talk about ending shop class or fining schools that offer shop class.
Amish businesses are even safer than that. And this bill doesn't even allow these teenagers to operate machines or power tools while doing their apprenticeship. This issue is about the survival of their way of life. If we can find a way to allow that to happen without threatening the safety of teenagers, then we should do it. I think with this bill we've made that happen. It protects commonsense safety rules, but allows Amish teenagers to learn a trade, to make a living.
Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.