LOCKPORT — By Joyce M. Miles
Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it. — Proverbs 22:6
Roger Yutzy is thinking of getting out of the fencing business and back into farming. Lloyd Yoder is thinking of getting out of New York completely.
In the Amish settlement just east of the Niagara-Orleans county line, craftsmen are feeling the pinch since state labor officials paid them a series of visits this past summer. After years of going about their traditions unhindered, they were informed most Amish businesses are violating state child labor laws by employing their underage children. They were told the practice had to cease immediately.
A half-year later, settlers are fearful they may lose their businesses and the tight-knit community they’ve fashioned for themselves in Lyndonville. In a clash of titans — the state of New York versus God — bureaucracy appears to have the upper hand, and that leaves the Amish only two choices: change their ways or change their ZIP codes.
“Not that I couldn’t hire help, but I’m missing the point if I can’t work with my children,” Yoder says. “I want to follow the law of the land, but if it contradicts the Bible ... I go with God’s word first.”
Yoder, a sawmill operator and apple crate maker who carved a working estate from woods and grassland off Murdock Road in the past few years, put his property up for sale in late November and decided he’s moving his family to Montana. He’d been wanting to go west someday and the labor department’s warnings, which put two of his sons out of work, pushed him to act.
“This is a good business and a good place to live, but we’ve made the decision,” Yoder said. “I expect (change in labor’s stance) to be a long, drawn-out thing.”
The problem that the Amish confront is a set of state work rules limiting child employment in some vocations and banning it in others — including sawmilling, woodworking and construction-related industries that are the lifeblood of the settlement’s enterprise.
Old Order Amish children attend school through eighth grade, then commence vocational training with their parents, girls in the home and boys with their fathers in the family business. But if the state prohibits them from working, Amish boys ages 14 through 17 essentially are left purposeless. That violates a bedrock principle of the Amish faith, according to local church Deacon Jerome Graber.
“Our biggest teaching comes from our walk, not just our word. Our children need to be with us. They belong to God and we are accountable for what we teach them — or don’t teach them,” he said.
Vernon Yoder, owner/operator of a bulk food store in the settlement, worries saying goodbye to his neighbors is something he may have to get used to.
“The state rules have put a lot of pressure on us. Rather than create a hassle, some of the Amish are moving away,” he said. “There may be no other choice.”
Legalities squeezing Amish
U.S. labor law sets relatively loose guidelines for child employment. There are some limits, in industries such as logging, sawmilling and metalwork, to prevent teens from operating heavy machinery, but the law allows them to do other lighter work.
New York State law, however, bans under-18 employment in those and other industries altogether.
Floyd Yoder, the apple crate maker, says after word came down about the state laws, he called a labor official in Rochester to inquire whether his 14- and 16-year-old boys could at least assemble crates away from the shop floor where the heavy machines are operated. The answer was no, he said.
What exactly the state directed Amish businesses to do, or cease doing, could not be determined. Amy Misisco, a labor investigator in the Rochester office, said officers do not comment on the specifics of any investigation; and a US&J; request made under the state Freedom of Information Act could not be met by the Albany-based Department of Labor legal office this week.
Yutzy, the fence-maker and bishop of the Lyndonville Amish Church, says a labor official approached him in mid-summer, as both the settlement spiritual leader and a business owner allegedly in violation of state law, and asked him to spread the word about the rules. The official had difficulty contacting businesses for inspections, Yutzy said, so no citations were ever made — but a copy of the rules was left behind and a crisis was sparked.
“(The official) said his department had received some complaints from local contractors and it is their job to act if complaints are received,” Yutzy said. “It’s been drastic for us. We have families that can’t provide work in their businesses for their own children. It’s having quite an effect.”
Between 80 and 90 percent of all businesses in the 32-family settlement are affected, Yutzy said. Because the state wants all youths younger than 18 to have working papers OK’d by a school district superintendent, Vernon Yoder figures even non-industrial businesses like his bulk food store are affected. The need for the papers means his underage daughter shouldn’t stock shelves or work the family cash register unless she gets an OK from an outside authority.
Even if the papers could be obtained, Graber, is troubled by the notion settlers would pursue permission from others to raise their own kids. It breaches the Amish community’s firm belief in separation of church and state.
“Sometimes, by getting into that system, it just opens the door to something else,” he said.
Graber cites a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Wisconsin v. Yoder, that supported Amish parents’ right to keep their children out of public schools. The larger point of the ruling, to his way of thinking, is that parents have a right to raise their children as they see fit.
“Our children are not forced to work, they want to work,” Graber says. “We don’t want to see them do dangerous things and get hurt.”
Where it concerns children, the law of the land seems to contain some contradictions, Floyd Yoder observes. While it prohibits them from working in presumptively dangerous occupations, the law allows them to partake of other potentially dangerous activities including driving motor vehicles and playing contact sports.
“In football, they have a doctor and an ambulance on standby — and this is OK,” Yoder said. “It does seem a bit skewed.”
‘Real fine line’ in legislation
The future of the settlement is in question as Amish business owners struggle to figure out how best to react to the state’s determinations about child labor.
After the summer visit from the labor official, Yutzy took his underage sons off his fencing crew and put them to work milking cows. He could because there are far fewer prohibitions on child farm labor and, having been a farmer himself, he could quit fencing if he has to and teach his sons the dairy business instead.
Many Amish parents don’t have that option.
“Others have no (farming) experience, or they don’t have enough land. It’s all bought up,” Yutzy said. “Hopefully we can get into agriculture again, get out of the home-based businesses with power tools — but those who can’t will be the first to move out.”
Amish elders have asked state Assemblyman Stephen Hawley, R-Batavia, to find a way for the Amish to be allowed to observe federal rather than state workplace rules.
“We do not seek special favors,” senior minister Alvin Beachy said. “We simply would like the (state) to recognize that our way does not harm anyone. Non-Amish children are tied to school. We think we are ahead by learning our children, in the home, a vocation.”
Hawley says he’s willing to give legislation a try, but he suggests it may not be easy.
“We’re looking to various possibilities. There is some similarity between a family farm and what this settlement in Lyndonville is doing,” Hawley said. “We don’t want to make it unattractive or uncompetitive for people who want to comply with the laws. But it’s a real fine line, because we want to make sure there’s a level playing field, too.”
State Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, who’s helped negotiate smaller state-versus-Amish disputes in the past, says he’s heard only one complaint over the years from a non-Amish business person about the settlement’s use of child labor. If asked, he would consider legislative outs for them now, he says — but only under certain conditions.
“I can’t say what I would do without hearing from the labor department what the issues are first. First and foremost, the safety of the children has to be taken into consideration,” he said. “(This) might be a little more difficult than other issues I’ve handled.”
Contact Joyce Miles at 439-9222, ext. 6245.
AMISH CULTURE CLASH: Tradition of child vocational training violates state labor laws, threatens fate of local settlement
LOCKPORT — By Joyce M. Miles
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