By Rob Hotakainen
McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON, D.C. — After witnessing his youngest son, Cole, get crushed to death in a 2014 logging accident in Washington state, Tim Bostwick is convinced the industry is unsafe for teens.
“He was barely just 18 and I got him the job — that’s something I’ve got to live with the rest of my life,” said Bostwick, 42, a third-generation logger from Winlock. “Logging is a real dangerous occupation, plain and simple, no ifs, ands or buts about it.”
Bostwick and his wife, Wendy, want Congress to reject a bill that would change the federal child labor law to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to operate mechanized logging equipment on family operations so long as they’re under parental supervision.
The bill, called the Future Logging Careers Act, has unanimous backing from Idaho’s all-Republican congressional delegation, which says the measure would give a head start to kids who want to pursue logging careers.
“Obviously that was a tragic situation, but somebody who does want to get into logging can and should be supervised by their parents,” Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, the bill’s chief sponsor, said in an interview. “If a child is going to go into logging, what better way than to start with your family and having your family teach it to you?”
Making the change would require Congress to provide an exemption under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, certain to be an uphill fight on Capitol Hill. Logging has consistently ranked among the nation’s most deadly professions, with 81 fatalities reported in 2015, the last year for which statistics are available, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Charlotte Garden, an associate professor who teaches labor law at the Seattle University School of Law, said the prospects for changing the law were slim.
And she said that even if Congress did amend the federal law, minors still would not be allowed to work in logging under Washington state law. She cited it as an example of how states can exceed federal standards on labor issues, just as they can approve higher minimum wages than those set by Congress.
Elaine Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries, said logging was listed as “a prohibited activity” for anyone under 18 under the state’s child labor laws.
“So that would not change even if the federal law changed,” she said.
Risch said Idaho had no similar law, so loggers there could begin employing 16- and 17-year-old family members with an act of Congress. He said his bill would not seek to override any state laws, saying Washington and other states should have the right to set their own stricter standards.
“I’m a states’ rights guy. … Let ‘em have at it,” Risch said.
But he said kids who grew up in logging families should have the same rights as those raised on farms. Federal law sets 18 as the minimum age for workers in non-agricultural occupations such as logging that have been declared hazardous by the U.S. Department of Labor. But only children under 16 are prohibited from doing hazardous work on farms.
“This puts logging on a par with agriculture,” Risch said.
While opponents warn that the change could lead to more fatalities, backers of the bill say the industry has become much safer in recent years.
“It is a tough sale for people that look back in history as to why the law was established in the first place — it was to prevent exploitation of children, particularly in factories,” said Shawn Keough, an Idaho Republican state senator who’s the executive director of the Associated Logging Contractors Inc. of Idaho, which represents 448 logging and wood products hauling businesses. “We get that, and we respect that history. But today, if you look at many of our logging operations in Idaho and across the country, we’re more likely to mechanized, and what that means is our folks are in a machine, in an enclosed cab, so it’s a lot less dangerous than even 15 or 20 years ago.”
Members of the Idaho delegation have sought to change the law in previous sessions of Congress, with no luck.
This year, GOP Sen. Mike Crapo and independent Sen. Angus King of Maine — another logging state — are co-sponsoring Risch’s bill. In the House of Representatives, Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador is the lead sponsor of a similar bill that has attracted 20 co-sponsors, including Idaho GOP Rep. Mike Simpson. Both bills have been referred to Congress’ labor committees for consideration.
Labrador said timber companies were an important part of Idaho’s history and economy and that changing the law would “allow parents to train the next generation of loggers and business owners.” He said his bill was backed by more than 30 logging industry groups and companies, including the American Loggers Council, an organization that includes timber harvesters in 30 states.
Idaho ranks eighth among the states in lumber production, but Risch said the logging industry faced an aging workforce and needed younger workers to fill jobs. He said his bill would allow minors to run mechanized equipment but that they could not run chain saws or work in any felling or skidding operations, in which trees are removed from the forest and readied for transport.
But he said it might be hard to get Congress to focus on the issue this year.
“I don’t know if it’s a tough sell,” he said. “The bigger problems is these are governing kinds of things that we don’t do. Up here, anything that passes is a huge Obamacare-type thing of 3,000 pages or something like that. Finding a place for smaller, more governing, practical kinds of legislation becomes difficult just because of the time crunch.”
Bostwick, the logger whose son was killed, said he didn’t believe the legislation was even serious at first.
“I saw something about this on Facebook and I kind of thought it was just a hoax or a joke,” he said. “I just can’t see a 16- or 17-year-old kid, even on a family-owned operation, being able to hack it. You’ve got to be focused all the time. I don’t think they have the drive to want to be there, and if you don’t have the drive to want to be there, then you’re not paying attention and you’re not where you should be. It’s a rough job.”
Keough said the industry had worked hard to improve its safety record, but she acknowledged the obvious risks: “Logging is a tough industry. It is outdoors, and there are a lot of unknown factors that you just simply can’t control. But it would be much better to have the opportunity to train your kids.”
Bostwick said parental supervision did nothing to prevent the death of his son, who got hit by a logging carriage as he was setting log chokers.
“Somebody made a mistake, something got knocked out of gear, and the carriage came down when he was trying to cross underneath it and he was killed,” Bostwick said. “I was 15 feet away from him. Somewhere along the line people are going to realize that they made a very huge mistake trying to push this bill. And to be personally honest with you, I will lobby my butt off to make sure that it don’t pass. I let my whole rigging crew know what was going on today, and they’re all opposed to it. My boss is opposed to it.”
Bostwick, who has worked as a logger for 25 years, said Cole had been earning $17 an hour, saving up for college, with hopes of becoming a game warden.
Wendy Bostwick said Cole was “every bit his father’s son,” outgoing with loads of friends, a prankster with a temper, a hard worker who loved to fish and hunt and break horses, and in a hurry to grow up.
“He grew up listening to logging stories,” she said. “He understood the dangers but he wanted to log anyway. He wasn’t afraid of much.”