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Groups stand against ‘sub-minimum’ wage for workers with disabilities

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Philip G. Pavely | TRIB TOTAL MEDIA
Shannon Malley counts and bags screws at Family Services of Western Pennsylvania in Harmar Township on Thursday, July 17, 2014.

One by one, the clothing hangers are separated, the good ones stacked on one pile and the damaged ones on another.

The people sorting hangers at a workshop in O’Hara Township have intellectual disabilities and are paid through a contract that Family Services of Western Pennsylvania has with a dry cleaning company.

The more hangers are separated, the more money the workers make. Few, if any, will earn more than a couple of dollars an hour.

This “sub-minimum” wage for workers with disabilities is legal, though some say it shouldn’t be. Advocacy groups says it is an exploitative, segregated employment situation based on outdated notions of people who are disabled.

“The sub-minimum wage is a relic from a 1930s set of assumptions about disabled people,” said Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network in Washington. “It no longer matches with how our government and society should look at people with disabilities.”

As Congress considers whether to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, advocacy groups have said that the rights of disabled workers are being lost in the conversation.

The debate has pitted advocates against the nonprofit service organizations that run workshops, which argue they provide vital support for disabled people that would disappear if disabled workers were paid full minimum wage — $7.25 per hour in Pennsylvania.

Proposed increase includes those with disabilities

Under pressure from advocacy groups, President Obama this year included disabled workers in his proposal to raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10 per hour. A bill sponsored last year by U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., who has a child with a disability would eliminate subminimum wages for workers with disabilities. The proposal is in committee.

Of the 3.5 million hourly workers in Pennsylvania — including non-disabled workers who receive tips, such as restaurant servers, and teenagers — 108,000 earned less than minimum wage in 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The nonprofit organization Achieva runs several workshops in Southwestern Pennsylvania in which disabled workers fulfill contracts to make pallets and sort hangers, among other tasks. Raising the pay for employees would price Achieva out of the market for many contracts, said Senior Vice President Reid Wolfe.

“If we were able to pay higher, it would mean we would have to raise what our contract is worth to that business,” Wolfe said. “And (contracting businesses) may not want to pay that.”

Advocates say closing sheltered workshops would be a good thing if it led to more integrated workplaces. Several states, such as Vermont, have phased out sheltered workshops and have much higher rates of integrated employment for people with developmental disabilities, according to a 2012 report from the National Council on Disability.

Pay relates to productivity

The sub-minimum wage provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act dates to 1938, when the federal government said pay for disabled workers could be reduced if they were less productive than non-disabled counterparts.

If a worker needs three hours to complete a minimum wage job that non-disabled workers can finish in an hour, for example, then the disabled worker would be paid $2.42.

The training and workplace supports for people with disabilities have improved significantly in the 76 years since the law was passed, and the goal of service organizations such as Achieva or Goodwill should be to transition workers into a traditional workplace, not perpetuate their segregation, Ne’eman said.

“It’s very accurate to say that the services delivered in a sheltered workshop are actually serving, in a backdoor way, of providing a meaningful day activity,” he said. “The question we should be asking ourselves is if that is the most meaningful day activity we can provide.”

The workshop managers say that they provide a positive environment for disabled people. They would pass on the money if the market would support it. However, these are not profit-making enterprises and the workshops would be unsustainable if wages were equal to non-disabled workers. “The contract services we provide, they are there so that we can provide an activity to the individuals that utilize that service,” said David Tobiczyk, a spokesman for Goodwill Southwestern Pennsylvania. “It is a service that loses money. … It is subsidized by the money we make in our retail stores.”

•Way to ‘feel necessary’

Ron Toncini’s 31-year-old daughter, Lauren, spends four days per week at workshops in Greensburg and Hempfield Township. Lauren is intellectually disabled and has mild cerebral palsy, Toncini said. She can’t read, add or subtract, he said. With a job coach, she might be able to stock shelves in a grocery store, but he believes the workshops suit her well.

The paychecks she brings home, about $100 for 40 hours, don’t come close to what people without disabilities would earn.

The wages aren’t the primary value these workshops offer, he said.

“If people go to these workshops to financially support themselves, people would have a very wrong impression,” said Toncini, 67, of Vandergrift. “When you work at these sheltered workshops, for many of the individuals that work there, their social life is to a large extent there. Their need for existence. They want to feel necessary. It’s important for them to get up and say, ‘I’m going to work today.’ ”

Service organizations could help disabled people find meaningful employment, but they need to evolve, said Ne’eman.

He said the minimum wage should not be eliminated overnight, but rather phased out over a number of years to give workshops time to adjust.

“The idea behind this is to give providers who are operating sheltered workshops a chance to change their business model,” he said. “It’s to change their approach from being an employer and a service provider, to just being a service provider who helps disabled workers find jobs in the community and keep those jobs.”

Chris Fleisher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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