By Alessia Grunberger
Disabilities rights groups called on lawmakers Wednesday to support a bill that would eventually eliminate a sub-minimum wage law that discriminates against employees with disabilities.
The bill, referred to as the Ken Capone Equal Employment Act, HB 420, would prohibit the Commissioner of Labor and Industry from allowing sheltered workshops and work activities center employers to pay workers with disabilities less than the minimum wage.
Currently, the commissioner issues certificates that permits this practice. The legislation is designed to phase out this policy relic from the 1930s over the course of three years and nullify those certificates by Oct. 1, 2019.
“The Equal Employment Act is very important for the civil rights of persons with developmental disabilities,” said Ken Capone, the public policy director for People on the Go. “No other group in our society is treated this way.”
The U.S. Labor Department reports 36 Maryland organizations hold section 14(c) certificates making them eligible to pay 3,469 workers subminimum wages. But none have applied to the state’s Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation to do so, as Maryland requires. So it is not clear how many of these organizations actually pay subminimum wages.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2014 approximately 145,000 individuals with a disability were employed in Maryland, about half full time. Approximately 24,400 individuals with a disability were unemployed, and 167,500 were not in the labor force.
The median earnings of a Maryland worker with a disability was $27,072, while the median earnings of a worker without a disability was $40,583.
Capone sent to demeaning work
While testifying before a crowded hearing of the House Economic Matters Committee, Capone, who types in words into a computer to speak, called the current labor law a “civil rights issue” and referred to his experiences working in a workshop.
After completing high school and receiving computer training from Johns Hopkins, Capone wanted to work in the computer field. However, after the state service system could not support him to find a job, they sent him to a workshop where he ended up doing assembly work.
“I don’t know how they expected me to do that,” Capone said. “Do you know how demeaning it was going to a sheltered workshop after completing a difficult program and class?”
Other witnesses who had also received training or a high school diploma felt that they were perceived as less capable than able-bodied individuals; and they, too, were held to lower standards.
Some opponents of the legislation
Despite those who testified in favor of the bill and recounted their experiences, some people were opposed to aspects of the legislation.
Dennis Moody, the chief operating officer at the Chimes — a non-profit that provides services and support for those with disabilities — said he was not opposed to the bill as a whole. Rather, he cited the projected phase-out timeline and fiscal impacts as concerns.
“We do remain concerned about the (proper) funding levels to make this successful,” Moody said.
Supporters of the bill did not share those concerns.
“This is inevitable,” said Rose Sloan, who works for the National Federation of the Blind. “Eventually, people with disabilities are going to be seen as productive and valuable individuals that we are.”
So far, only Vermont and New Hampshire have already phased out the sub-minimum wage law.
There are 38 bipartisan co-sponsors of HB320 in the House, and 9 bipartisan co-sponsors of its companion, SB417, with a hearing scheduled Thursday in the Senate Finance Committee.