Subminimum wage is an archaic relic of the 1930s. It dates to a time when children with disabilities were denied an education and before civil rights legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Washington’s leaders this legislative session have an opportunity to end the disgraceful practice of paying workers with disabilities as little as 2 cents an hour.
The state’s Minimum Wage Act coupled with the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 allows people with disabilities — and only people with disabilities — to be paid cents on the dollar. The rules are different from the standards of other minimum-wage exemptions. For example, tipped workers must make at least minimum wage after tips; minors and apprentices are only paid slightly below minimum wage.
Disability, though, is an immutable characteristic. It is not an employment choice, such as being a waiter, nor something one grows out of, such as being an apprentice or teenager.
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Subminimum wage is also something we, people with disabilities, do not want. It was forced on us by well-meaning do-gooders who thought it would encourage businesses to hire more people with disabilities. It has not. What it has done is inhibit our growth as employees, our chances of advancement, and our ability to support ourselves and have a life off public assistance.
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In Washington and elsewhere, subminimum wages are most associated with sheltered workshops offering prevocational services, usually underwritten by Medicaid funds. But each can exist independently of each other. Sheltered shops can pay minimum wage, and individual employers can pay an employee with a disability less than minimum wage.
The country has been moving away from sheltered workshops since the 1980s. Starting in March, Medicaid funds can no longer be used to support them. The new model — find a good job match in the community and offer training and support specific to that job — is much more effective at promoting inclusion and helping people develop marketable job skills. In fact, Washington leads in efforts to support and employ people with developmental disabilities in the community.
As the supported employment model changed, states started eliminating subminimum wages. First Vermont and Maine in the 1990s, followed more recently by New Hampshire, Alaska and Maryland. Seattle became the first city government to abolish the practice last year, inspiring Reno, Nevada, to limit it last month. The fight for wage equality is gaining momentum, with legislation under consideration in Kentucky, Hawaii and Oregon also.
Here in Washington state, Rep. Noel Frame, D-Seattle, and Sen. Emily Randall, D-Bremerton, introduced companion bills HB 1706 and SB 5753 to end the practice of subminimum wages for people with disabilities. In the other Washington, Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, introduced HR 873, the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act.
The effort made it onto the platforms of both major parties in 2016 and has widespread community support. The National Federation of the Blind maintains a list of scores of organizations in support of the law change; here in Washington, 80 organizations and businesses have signed on in support.
One of the reasons that subminimum wage is ineffective is because it’s a cookie-cutter solution that involves cramming people with disabilities into a single job based on location, rather than finding the person’s strengths and allowing them to pursue a job that utilizes those strengths.
The whole existence of sheltered work and subminimum wage is predicated on the idea that disabled people can’t succeed in employment. But the data shows us this isn’t true. For instance, Seattle city government employs 113 people with developmental disabilities in customized jobs. Employers such as Microsoft cite the benefits of a diverse workforce, more empathy among employees and high retention rates of people hired through supported employment.
Subminimum wage is an archaic relic of the 1930s. It dates to a time when children with disabilities were denied an education and before civil rights legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act. It’s time for it to go.
Last year in Seattle, activists broke new ground by ensuring that no one was worth less because of a disability. It’s time to bring that promise to Washington state.