Workers with disabilities may be paid less than the minimum wage. Some countries want to put an end to it

Nicholas Costanzo, 31, works the ice cream counter at Golden Scoop in Overland Park, Kan. While the nonprofit store could seek permission to pay its workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities below the federal minimum wage of $7.25, all are paid at least $15 an hour. Some states intend to abolish wages below the minimum wage. (Kevin Hardy/Stateline/TNS)

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — High fives, fist bumps and hugs come with ice cream at the Golden Scoop.

Located in a strip mall in suburban Kansas City, the store employs 15 people with developmental disabilities. While customers come first for the sweet treats, many are drawn to Golden Scoop’s mission and friendly environment.

«It brings you so much joy,» said Lindsay Krumbholz, who opened the store with her sister in 2021. «We’ve even had customers come in and say, ‘I had a bad day, I just had to come to Golden Scoop.'»

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The nonprofit store could request federal approval to pay workers below the federal minimum wage of $7.25. But each of the store’s “Super Scoopers” makes at least $15 an hour plus tips.

Among them is 32-year-old Jack Murphy, known to customers by the nickname «The Mayor». He enjoys connecting with them, the managers and expert trainers who support him during his shifts.

«I like coming to work,» he said. «If I didn’t work, I would cry.»

Everything at Golden Scoop is designed to set workers up for success: the menu is pared down for simplicity. Employees scoop and bag ice cream to streamline service. Links with large pictures show step-by-step instructions for mixing batches of ice cream. And the roasts are prepared elsewhere.

«They provide customized employment. They make the right accommodations for the individuals who work there to succeed,” Sara Hart Weir, executive director of the Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities, said of the store managers.

Weir, who also serves on Golden Scoop’s board, hopes more Kansas employers will follow the ice cream shop’s model after state law this year provided money for organizations to pay disabled workers above the minimum wage. For the first time, the law provided a special tax credit only to employers who pay at least the minimum wage.

Since 1938, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, federal law has allowed some employers to pay people deemed less productive because of physical or mental disabilities well below the federal minimum wage. While the original intent of the law was to provide opportunities to those with little access to work, policymakers in a growing number of states are trying to move away from this practice.

With federal authorization, employers they pay pennies or a few dollars an hour in «sheltered workshops» that contract with companies and hire workers to perform menial tasks such as shredding paper, attaching product labels, or packaging consumer goods in group settings that are separate from the main employees.

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While most workers have intellectual disabilities that may include cerebral palsy or Down syndrome, federal regulations list blindness, alcoholism, and drug addiction as disabilities that qualify for lower pay.

At least 16 states have abolished the sub-minimum wage, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Others, including Kansas and Minnesota, have agreed on a middle ground: creating funds to help employers make the change themselves.

The move comes amid increased scrutiny of Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the federal law that allows lower wages, and after decades of efforts to fully integrate people with disabilities into their communities.

Congress has repeatedly failed to ban the practice: a bipartisan group of representatives from both houses of Congress introduced one legislation last year, but it has not progressed. It was followed by the US Department of Labor announcement of «comprehensive review» federal program. In the 2020 reportthe US Commission on Civil Rights found «persistent failures in the regulation and oversight» of employers by the federal Departments of Labor and Justice.

While many disability advocates see moving away from the sub-minimum wage as a basic fairness issue, others worry that raising wages could affect welfare benefits for disabled workers or outright shut down some operations that employ disabled workers.

Report from the US Government Accountability Office found last year that about 120,000 workers were employed under the program, half of whom earned less than $3.50 an hour.

But use of the program has been declining for years, as more employees with disabilities have moved away from sheltered workshops and into mainstream work environments like Golden Scoop.

In 2010, more than 3,100 employers nationwide participated in the federal subminimum wage program. By 2019, that number had dropped by nearly half, with 1,567 employers participating, according to the GAO.

«What this program has become over the decades is a very niche program for people with significant intellectual disabilities and mental health issues,» said Kit Brewer, executive director of Project CU, a sheltered workshop in St. Louis, which employs about 100 people with developmental disabilities. disabilities.

Brewer said many workers don’t have the capacity to produce at the rate needed to compete in mainstream work environments, meaning working below minimum wage may be their only option. And, he said, the economy simply can’t handle higher wages. Like other workshops, Project CU competes with for-profit companies.

A large proportion of those who work on packaging, labels and packaging materials at his facility, Brewer said, would struggle to find regular employment — even those with the right skills.

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«They don’t have a comfort level, because of their anxiety, because of their disability, probably because of some of their behavioral needs,» he said. «And throwing money at change doesn’t fix any of that.»

«Everything is a matter of choice»

In Minnesota, disability advocates have been working for years to phase out the sub-minimum wage. Last year, lawmakers accepted most of the state’s recommendations work group. In a comprehensive spending bill, they provided funding for technical assistance, case management and training for those employers moving to the minimum wage.

Last month, the House Committee approved the account which would abolish the sub-minimum wage.

Sheltered workshops are as outdated as the state facilities that once housed many people with disabilities, argued Jillian Nelson, task force member and community resource and policy advocate for the Autism Society of Minnesota.

«We would never do that now,» she said. «We saw that when we took people out of institutions, they progressed. When we got people out of institutions, our communities became more diverse. … And this is pretty much the same thing.”

Nelson, who has autism, said she struggled with regular employment for years. She said she wasn’t into office politics and bounced between entry-level jobs, but then found a supportive employer.

“It changed my sense of self-worth. It changed my value about myself,” she said. “It’s hard to want more for your life when you’re making $4 an hour. It’s hard to see the value in yourself when you’re being told you’re worth $3 an hour.”

But repealing the sub-minimum wage could remove options for some families by causing workshops to close, said Minnesota Republican state Sen. Jim Abeler.

«For me, everything is a matter of choice,» said Abeler, who opposes the abolition of the sub-minimum wage. «No one should be trapped, so if they want to be independent, we should try to support them in that.»

Abeler said he supports efforts to help workers with disabilities transition to competitive employment — if they want to. But, he said, it’s not an option for everyone.

Of the 3,200 Minnesotans working for sub-minimum wages, he said, several hundred could find regular work.

«So at least 2,500 people would find themselves sitting at home, trying to solve a puzzle or watch TV or something,» he said.

Effects of closure

In the fall of 2021, Colleen Stuart said a change in Pennsylvania state compensation rates for professional development services forced her to close a sheltered workshop where rural workers prepared shipments and packaged goods for 25 years.

Employees lost friendships and wages, but the shutdown also affected their families: Some parents said they would have to quit their jobs to care for their newly employed adult children.

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«Individuals have said, ‘Colleen, you’re breaking up our family,'» she said. «It broke my heart.»

Stuart is the president of the national Coalition for the preservation of employment choicewhich advocates for a federal program that allows employers to pay wages below the minimum wage.

She is also the executive director of the Venango Training and Development Center, which provides mental health and employment services in northwestern Pennsylvania.

While the 2021 closure of a protective workshop at her training center was not related to wage issues, she said its effects show what could happen to employees at other workshops if they are forced to pay more than the minimum wage.

«To this day, there is one person out of every individual who has gotten a job,» she said. «The others still do not have services and are sitting at home. And that is our biggest concern.»

Similar worries this January helped sink Utah legislation it would end the sub-minimum wage, said Nate Crippes, a public affairs attorney at the Utah Disability Law Center. Utah’s 45-day legislative session has made it difficult to have a meaningful debate on the issue, he said.

«I think it needs to be a longer discussion than just, ‘Oh, these places would fail and people would have nowhere to go,'» he said. «Because I don’t think that would happen.»

Crippes said day programs and other services for people with disabilities would continue even if sheltered workshops had to pay minimum wage.

«My struggle is that our minimum wage is pretty low and it’s not a living wage,» he said. «Just getting people to $7.25 shouldn’t be out of the question.»

Georgia state representative Scott Hilton sees the problem through the lens of his 14-year-old son, who has Down syndrome.

«My goal for my child is for him to be a taxpayer, and in turn be a net positive, a net benefit back to that system that has paid so much in his life to make him a happy, healthy, productive citizen,» he said.

Hilton, a Republican, he co-sponsored the bill at this session it would force the state’s eight remaining workshops to pay the federal minimum wage. Account it was approved by the state house and is pending in the state senate.

«Work brings joy to many of us,» Hilton said. «And that’s what we would want for any of our children — meaningful work and fair pay.»

Stateline is part of State Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by donations and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Stateline maintains editorial independence.

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