What’s a fair wage for workers with disabilities? California bill seeks end to subminimum wages
In California, unlike the majority of employees, there is no minimum wage for some disabled workers.
There are those who believe that’s a social injustice. Others contend rules allowing workers to make much less per hour provides the only way they will ever receive a paycheck.
“Every single person who works deserves to be treated with dignity and that begins with being paid at least the legal minimum wage,” state Sen. María Elena Durazo, D-Los Angeles, told the North Bay Business Journal.
Typically, the work being done for less is less skilled, like stuffing envelopes. Usually, the work is contracted between a nonprofit advocacy group and a client.
“The fact that it is legal to pay those with a disability less than minimum wage is disgraceful and a blatant violation of their civil rights. This is the year we end this outdated and unjust practice in California,” Durazo said.
She introduced a bill that would mandate disabled persons be paid the state minimum wage, reversing a federal law that established the practice in 1938. The bill, if it becomes law, would end the pay disparity provision in California on Jan. 1, 2025.
Here’s key language in the legislation:
“… there are over 5,000 Californians with disabilities who do work and are doing so in segregated settings, and are paid sometimes as low as 15 cents an hour for their work. This leads to continued poverty and dependence throughout their working years and once they are of retirement age. In 2019, the poverty rate of Californians with disabilities was 18.4 percent and 11 percent for Californians with no disabilities.”
To allow workers to be paid below the $14 an hour minimum wage, companies must obtain a federal 14(c) wage certificate. Eight agencies in the North Bay have the documentation.
Reaction in the North Bay
“It’s kind of a controversial, heated topic in the disability field,” Jeremy Hogan, disabilities services program director for California Human Development in Santa Rosa, said of wage 14(c). “Admittedly it is antiquated model. It’s a huge part of what we have done in the past. The people we support actually enjoy it, their families enjoy it … to stay busy and be productive. Even if they are making very little, they are excited to receive their check. They feel like they are giving back, contributing. For them, it’s one of their few options.”
The work they do for some North Bay agencies can be assembly type jobs or other repetitive work like shredding documents. The agency has a contract with the employer and pays the individuals directly.
These jobs usually make less than minimum wage. It is up to the agency to determine what their clients make.
The other popular work category is competitive wage employment, where a client works for a company and gets paid by that business just like anyone else would; with minimum wage being the starting pay. A job coach employed by the nonprofit agency is able to help the worker and employer resolve issues. These are often things those without a disability might take for granted like understanding how to request time off.
A wealth of companies in the North Bay offer this type of work — from a Safeway in Lake County to Sonoma County-based firms Amy’s Kitchen and Oliver’s Market.
Hogan’s agency is on the path to eliminate 14(c), though no set time line has been instituted to do so. He also admits not everyone is cut out to work in a competitive environment, acknowledging the state legislation could impact some people by eliminating their job because the agency will not be able to make up the salary difference in the contract work.
“For us, it’s all about the individuals we serve. That is who we should be asking about this type of stuff. They should be driving it,” Hogan said.
Dana Lewis, executive director of People Services in Lakeport, is apprehensive and angry about the proposed state law.
“What ruffles my feathers is people think we are making money as service providers on the backs of people with disabilities. That’s not true,” Lewis said. “The wage they are earning is meaningful to them. Who are we to propose that wage is not meaningful or deserveable?”
Lewis believes the one-size-fits-all approach to employment that the proposed bill tends to promote is not beneficial to all of her clients.
“If 14(c) went away, they would not just go into competitive employment. There is not enough work to go around,” Lewis said. “I think one of the biggest things with the bill is that it seems to be tunnel vision in the fact that everyone deserves to earn minimum wage or above without looking at the bigger picture like folks who don’t choose to do that.”