Advocates push for phase out of subminimum wages for workers with disabilities

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By Alessia Grunberger


Ken Capone, left foreground, at hearing on subminimum wage FEb. 10.

Ken Capone, left foreground, at hearing on subminimum wage Feb. 10. Photo 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.

  • Vidi

    This is a tricky issue. While disabled people who perform the same job as their peers in the workforce should definitely be paid the same wage as their peers, the argument changes a bit when we include the more severely disabled in the equation, more specifically the developmentally disabled. .Currently, it is very difficult to find them jobs in sheltered workshops. Raising the subminimum wage for them might be devastating.

  • AudreyA

    The elimination of the sub-minimum wage does not create jobs for the disabled. Instead, it will end the employment of many thousands of happily employed people with intellectual disabilities. Current law is clear and should not be changed; if a person can do a job at the same level of productivity as a person without disabilities, it is completely illegal to pay a sub-minimum wage. The wage is only allowed for people who cannot work at the same level of productivity and therefore cannot compete for a job with the
    non-disabled population. The needs of the physically disabled are different from those with intellectual
    disabilities. I’ve heard of cases like the young man in a wheelchair who are frustrated that the ONLY place that would even remotely consider hiring them is a group employment center. Lashing out and attacking the only place that offered him a job doesn’t solve anything–it only hurts other members of the disabled community. In Maine they shut down all the centers and instead tried to find people work at regular jobs; after a year, fully 70% are now left at home isolated with nothing to do at all. Before they had jobs they liked, jobs that provided structure and purpose to their days, daily interaction with their community and friends, but now they have nothing. My son works at a model group employment center and he not only loves his work, he doesn’t want to work anywhere else, despite the low pay. Some of his friends who had regular jobs also are quite adamant that they want to work at the center instead. And shame on self-appointed advocates for deciding they know what is best for my son and his friends without bothering toask them or the families who love them.

    • Teresa Thoroughman

      I totally agree. My son is at the point now, He is leaving High School. I just had a meeting with the DD Board about employment. He is not able to be in the Community Employment Program, because of his physical disability, due to needing help with everything, from toileting and getting around in his wheelchair. He is also nonverbal, you cannot keep his attention on things for very long. He can do things, but it takes longer and needs assistance. They say he can go to day hab to learn skills, but that also takes funds that have been cut by the state. We are waiting to see what will happen. Guessing he will be homebound, due to he is not employable in the community at minimum wage, and that is a shame, because he is very independent in some things and will just be left to felling worthless. At least with the little he would have gotten, he could have his SSI and still felt like he was contributing and feeling worthwhile. He communicates with an electronic device.I am in Ohio.

  • Bonnie Lee-Dubois

    In Maine, if those who receive sheltered workshop monies, made minimum wage, they would lose their disability monies