GAP, Pa. — A community known for insulating itself from the outside world is reaching out to lawmakers in an effort to preserve a centuries-old tradition of having children work.

On Friday, about 25 Amish leaders met at a fire station with Rep. Joseph Pitts and Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republicans who support legislation that would allow Amish youths to work in limited, supervised settings.

The Amish leaders are seeking an exemption to federal child-labor protection laws barring teenagers from working in sawmills and woodworking shops. They have pushed for the change in recent years since the Labor Department began fining some of their businesses thousands of dollars for employing youths.

The Amish leaders told Pitts and Specter they believe existing laws threaten their religious and work values.

The Amish at the meeting declined to comment, but the lawmakers said one man who owns a leather shop said he was fined $8,000 because his 13-year-old daughter was caught working the cash register in his store.

"We do not want children running dangerous machinery," Pitts said after the meeting. "This is about allowing youth to complete their classroom educations . . . and to continue their educations as their fathers did — as trade apprentices."

Under Amish tradition, youngsters were supposed to work in apprenticeship settings after the eighth grade. For years that didn't conflict with federal law because the Amish community's livelihood was rooted in agriculture, and farms are exempt from child labor laws.

But with the growing costs of farming in the past decade, many families have turned to woodworking and other small trades.

Federal labor laws prohibit children younger than 16 from working in manufacturing operations and children younger than 18 from working in other hazardous occupations.

Legislation proposed by Pitts would let teens work in those settings but would also require additional anti-noise and safety features, including barriers to protect against flying debris.

Pitts' measure has passed the House twice in recent years but has failed each time in the Senate. The Department of Labor has long been opposed to such measures.

Critics say the proposed child-labor exemption would still put children in harm's way, with the Labor Department noting that deaths and injuries at sawmills are as much as four times the national average.

"While we respect deeply the culture and religious tradition of the Amish and similar communities, we can't support a bill that exposes young workers to serious hazards in the workplace," said John Fraser, a department official specializing in child labor laws.

Skeptics in the Senate have agreed, raising constitutional concerns in exempting members of one religion. Specter said he hopes to conduct hearings next year to work out the concerns.

"I think there are special circumstances for the Amish youth, and they ought not to be subject to Department of Labor regulations," Specter said.


On the Net: U.S. Department of Labor: www.dol.gov/