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A culture clash in roofing

Main Line contractors, losing jobs to the Amish, cry foul. The Amish say they work harder.

Keith McLean and other non-Amish contractors contend the Amish have different Social Security and workers' comp rules. (Laurence Kesterson/Staff)
Keith McLean and other non-Amish contractors contend the Amish have different Social Security and workers' comp rules. (Laurence Kesterson/Staff)Read more

PHILADELPHIA -- Main Line roofers say they are taking it on the chin from Amish competitors, who are getting a significant amount of work in Philadelphia's wealthy western suburbs.

Keith McLean, a Paoli roofing contractor, said he lost a job this month when his bid of $8,000 was $3,000 more than the winning Amish bid.

The 38 percent difference in price, McLean said, rendered him unable to compete. "My wiggle room is hundreds of dollars. I don't have three grand" to play with, said McLean, who owns Hancock Building Associates Inc.

McLean and other non-Amish contractors say the Amish, who come from Lancaster County and western Chester County, have an advantage because they do not have to pay Social Security taxes for themselves or their Amish employees and are eligible for a religious exemption from workers' compensation insurance, although not all take advantage of the latter.

"If they are going to come into our community, they need to conduct their business the same way we do," said McLean, who has been in business for 20 years.

Amish contractors said their biggest advantage is that they work harder and faster, and are used to Lancaster County's lower prices and wages. "From what they [non-Amish contractors] charge down there, they make a killing," said John F. Stoltzfus, who owns Countryside Roofing & Exteriors, of Strasburg, Pa.

Amish contractors have been working in Philadelphia's suburbs for many years, but when the economy was booming, high-end contractors on the Main Line and in Chester County were not as bothered by the competitive pinch.

Now, with all contractors needing to look farther afield for work, local builders are up in arms over what they call unfair competition from the Plain People, who the local contractors say not only undercut them but go back home without spending money here.

"It's a form of outsourcing," said Steven Kraegel, who owns CedarTek L.L.C., a Paoli roofing company, and was one of six non-Amish contractors interviewed.

Of course, outsourcing for cheaper prices often leaves more money in customers' pockets, making it hard to calculate a net gain or loss.

In broad terms, the key force in this conflict is the transformation of the Amish economy from one centered on farming, as recently as the mid-1970s, to one that is more diversified.

"About 40 percent of Amish households receive their primary income from farming, the rest from businesses," said Donald B. Kraybill, an Amish expert at Elizabethtown College.

The shift can cause a culture clash, as Amish contractors claim a superior work ethic.

"The faster my guys work, the lower I can bid," said Aaron S. Esh, president of Esh Home Improvements, of New Holland, Pa. "If my guys are efficient and they get the job done in half the time" of a non-Amish crew, "guess what? I'm going to bid lower," said Esh, who does not buy workers' compensation insurance because his firm is organized as a partnership.

When told what Esh and other Amish said about working faster, McLean scoffed. "They don't work faster," he said, suggesting that a lower cost of living in the Amish community - no cable bills, for example - was a big factor. "They don't have a lifestyle. They just work."

McLean, a strapping rugby player who at 50 is trying to trade the sport for rowing on the Schuylkill, has been researching the Amish at least since February, trying to understand how they can work for so much less than he can.

Two key legal differences for Amish are the Social Security exemption - passed by Congress because the Amish consider Social Security a form of insurance, which they reject - and the potential religious exemption from workers' compensation insurance, though only one religious exemption for an Amish firm that took out a permit in one local township could be confirmed for this article.

Typically, Amish firms that do not pay for workers' compensation insurance - Pennsylvania is one of the states that allows an exemption, over the same concern about insurance - are set up as partnerships, making each member an owner. And owners, the Amish said, are exempted from having to have workers' compensation.

Amish pay state and local income taxes, county taxes, sales taxes, and local school taxes in addition to paying for their own private schools, according to the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College.

Six of the 10 Amish contractors interviewed for this article pay for workers' compensation insurance, and a closer examination of one Chester County township found that workers' compensation insurance did not appear to be a decisive factor.

Uwchlan Township officials had issued permits for 125 residential replacement roofs this year through Tuesday, with a total value of $970,006. Amish firms accounted for 28 of those permits, listed with a value of $188,125, about 20 percent of the total number in both cases, according to township records.

Slightly more than half of the Amish business - $97,265 - went to firms that have workers' compensation insurance, according to the independent Pennsylvania Workers' Compensation Rating Bureau.

One Amish firm, Stoltzfus & Sons Builders, of Kinzers, Pa., told Uwchlan officials when it applied for a roofing permit Oct. 15 that it had workers' compensation insurance. However, there is no record of the company's insurance at the Compensation Rating Bureau, which is an intermediary among employers, insurance companies, and the government agencies that oversee the insurance.

When asked for an explanation Wednesday, owner Stephen S. Stoltzfus said, "It's none of your business."

Two Uwchlan customers of Amish firms had different takes on price.

Clifford Hoffman said he hired L&S Construction from New Holland without getting a competing bid because the offer from L&S, which has workers' compensation insurance, was $1,800 less than he paid 10 years ago for a roof. "They did an excellent job. Everything was perfect," he said.

Price was not the main issue when Jenna and George Marion hired Beiler Bros., of New Holland, which also has workers' comp, for a roofing job. "I don't think they were substantially less. George just liked the quality of what they were going to do," Jenna Marion said.