Kansas House: Compensation for disabled workers is a center of debate

Kansas lawmakers are considering a proposal that many disability rights advocates say would encourage employers to continue paying disabled workers less than the minimum wage, preventing a national trend.

A bill in the Kansas House expands the state income tax credit for goods and services purchased from vendors that employ disabled workers, doubling the total allowable to $10 million annually.

Vendors are already qualified by paying all their workers with disabilities at least the minimum wage, but the measure would allow vendors to pay some workers less if those workers do not participate in the purchase of goods and services to claim the tax credit. Supporters argue the bill will enable more vendors to participate, develop work and vocational training opportunities for disabled people.

The debate in Kansas comes as employers across the country move to pay at least the federal hourly minimum wage of $7.25. About 122,000 disabled workers received less in 2019, compared with about 295,000 in 2010, according to a report by the US Government Accountability Office to Congress in January.

Critics argue that the below-minimum-wage jobs take advantage of workers like Trey Lockwood, a 30-year-old Kansas City-area resident with autism, who holds down three part-time jobs pays above minimum wage. In one of them, The Golden Scoop ice cream shop, he greets customers and makes ice cream using a “spinner,” a machine he says is like a washing machine. He has money to buy clothes and other things.

“I feel good about that,” he said.

Her mother, Michele Lockwood, said employers who pay less than minimum wage do not promote independence.

Neil Romano, a member of the National Council on Disability, agreed, adding, “It’s very much against the course of history.”

But other promoters and operators of the programs questioned about their wages said the severity of some physical, intellectual and mental disabilities meant that such programs could not be eliminated without depriving people of valuable opportunities. .

Cottonwood Inc., of Lawrence in northeastern Kansas, handles packaging for several companies. Its wages are based on the area’s prevailing industry standard of more than $15 an hour, adjusted for a worker’s productivity. As workers become more productive, they earn higher wages.

CEO Colleen Himmelberg said Cottonwood helps workers who need one-on-one support that other employers don’t provide.

“They are unlikely to help someone to the toilet or clean up after an accident. The truth is there,” Himmelberg said. “But that person can work here and still get a paycheck.”

Pat Jonas, president and CEO of the Cerebral Palsy Research Foundation in Wichita, Kansas, said the goal is a more “user friendly” tax credit program that cuts a huge burden for some. vendors. If current employers want to participate, while also maintaining below-minimum-wage jobs as vocational training, they must establish a new, separate company or nonprofit that pays workers at or above of the minimum wage.

“It’s just sad that everyone can’t be pulling in the same direction,” Jonas said, adding that the foundation always pay at or above the minimum wage.

Thirteen states bar below-minimum-wage jobs for disabled workers, including California, Colorado and Tennessee, according to the Association of People Supporting Employment First, which promotes inclusive policies. at work. Virginia lawmakers sent a bill last month to Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, and there is a bipartisan proposal for a national ban in Congress.

Andy Traub, a human resources consultant in Kansas City who works with The Golden Scoop and larger businesses, said there may be a limited space for hidden workshops, but “not as a default setting.” Groups serving the disabled should help them try “competitive” jobs first, he said.

The federal law that allows an exemption from paying the minimum wage dates back to the 1930s. It is based on the premise that lower wages compensate for the perceived lower productivity of disabled workers and that exempt employers must regularly study how quickly employees perform their work. A January report to Congress stated that 51% of exempt workers with disabilities were paid less than $3.50 an hour and nearly 2% earned less than 25 cents an hour. .

Some advocates argue that they are still struggling with vestiges of attitudes from decades ago, when many disabled people were institutionalized and uneducated.

They were referring to a mid-February meeting of a Kansas legislative committee that was promoting tax credit provisions. The chairman of the committee in charge of the bill, Rep. State Rep. Sean Tarwater, a Kansas City-area Republican, has defended programs that pay below the minimum wage.

“They are the people who can’t do anything,” Tarwater told his committee. “If you eliminate programs like that, they rot at home.”

Days later, Tarwater said he meant people with severe disabilities. But his comments shocked national and state disability rights groups.

Connecticut State Rep. Jane Garibay, a Hartford-area Democrat, said that paying fairly is “part of being valued as a human being.” She lives with an adult niece with Down syndrome and sponsors a bill which would require Connecticut employers to pay workers with intellectual disabilities the state minimum wage, $15 an hour, if they can perform a job.

“It seems that, as a woman, I am paid less than a man for doing the same job. We’ve been there, haven’t we?” Garibay said. “If you do the same job, the pay should be the same.”

In the Kansas City area, a nonprofit Golden Scoop ice cream shop opened in April 2021 that pays its workers $8, plus tips — higher than the state’s $7.25 minimum wage. Amber Schreiber, its president and CEO, praised the disabled workers as loyal and passionate. Golden Scoop hopes to open another store and an ice cream manufacturing plant to sell wholesale.

In the Washington DC area, a nonprofit, Melwood, eliminated below-minimum-wage jobs starting in 2016. President and CEO Larysa Kautz said Melwood had to close a print shop with disabled workers doing menial tasks, but it started a recycling sorting service. The organization does government landscaping jobs throughout the area, and between 900 and 1,000 of its 1,300 workers have significant disabilities, he said.

A report to Congress in January said the number of employers with exemptions that allow them to pay below the minimum wage dropped to less than 1,600 in 2019 from more than 3,100 in 2010. Romano said that it should fall to 1,300 this year.

“It requires new thinking,” Kautz said. “But there are so many of us who have done it.”

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