A whine fills the sawmill and woodchips fly as shiny, jagged teeth eat into a sturdy log being fed by men and teenage boys in Amish dress.
To the government, this is a crime scene.
All over Vernon and Monroe counties, child labor laws are being broken when Amish teens work around heavy machinery such as industrial saws.
A bill before Congress seeks to exempt the Amish from child labor laws in a culture where children leave school after the eighth grade to learn a trade and support their families. If approved after years of trying, it would be similar to an existing exemption that covers farming.
One Amish man who owns a sawmill south of Cashton, Wis., says it is common for teenagers to work in businesses where heavy machinery is present.
The man, whom the Tribune is not identifying, said he employs a 17-year-old boy who first started working at the sawmill two years ago. He once hired another 15-year-old, and that it is common practice in the Amish community, despite federal laws, he said.
“He’s 15, so why not put him to work?” the man said. “What’s he going to do? Sit back in a rocking chair?
“I can see the dangers, too, but we teach them (to) be sure the guards are up,” he said. “Give them a little responsibility. That’s what helps them grow up and learn their own business, I guess.”
The U.S. Department of Labor does not agree, and Amish businessmen in Pennsylvania have been fined $10,000 or more for child labor violations.
Under the bill before Congress, Amish teenagers would only be allowed to do certain jobs, would not be allowed to operate power-driven woodworking machines and would have to wear protective equipment. Additionally, teenagers would have to be supervised by an adult relative or an adult member of the same religious sect.
Similar legislation passed the Republican-controlled House in 1998 and 1999, but it was blocked both times by the Democrat-controlled Senate. The new bill is sponsored by members of both parties, including U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse.
A House committee heard testimony on the bill in October, but it has yet to be voted on, Kind said.
The bill argues that Amish and Mennonite people should get the exemption because existing child labor laws are a threat to their religious beliefs and way of life.
The two similar sects, who choose to lead simple lives and shun many modern conveniences, are not required to offer education beyond the eighth grade under a landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972.
Integrating Amish teens into the workplace is part of their way of life and should be respected, Kind said. There are some 8,000 Amish in the 3rd Congressional District, and Kind said he has met with some of them and listened to their concerns.
“This would deal with the religious concerns, but also with some safeguards for the kids,” Kind said. “I think we’re on safe constitutional ground.
“With the way (Amish) children are integrated into the workplace at an early age, I think we can have this legislation,” he said.
The local Amish sawmill owner said newly hired teen workers are not given the same responsibility as adults.
He added he was not aware of any local Amish children being injured in a sawmill or fines being levied.
“We usually try to keep them at lighter work,” he said. “We started easy with (the 15-year-old he hired); he ran the (saw) edger at first, and now he does anything around the mill.”
However, not everybody supports the proposed legislation. A former Amish child sawmill worker wrote a letter to legislators in October, urging them to vote against the bill.
John Miller of Mansfield, Ohio, said he and a brother were forced into “strenuous” sawmill work at the 14. As is routine in Amish communities, the money they earned went straight to their parents. Amish workers don’t receive the money they earn until they turn 21.
“Our experience in the sawmill convinced me that sawmills are completely inappropriate places for children to be working,” Miller said. “There was nothing about our Amish upbringing that made the sawmill any less dangerous for us than it was for children of other religions.”