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Chair of House committee aims to end subminimum wage for workers with disabilities

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Evelyn Farkas, Georgia Recorder
February 27, 2024

Eight Georgia community rehabilitation providers are legally paying subminimum wage to 245 workers with disabilities.

State legislation that has advanced out of the Industry and Labor committee aims to eradicate the practice.

“I really just couldn’t believe that we are still allowing it in Georgia,” said Chair of the House Public Health Committee Marietta GOP Rep. Sharon Cooper, the bill’s lead sponsor.

For her co-sponsor of House Bill 1125, Peachtree Corners Republican Rep. Scott Hilton, the matter is personal. 

“As the father of a child with a disability, I want him, my son, 14-year-old Chase, when he grows up, to work at a happy, healthy and productive job earning a wage of what he ought to be paid,” Hilton said. 

The eight community rehabilitation providers hold certificates granting them permission to pay subminimum wage, provisioned by a section of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Providers contract work from local businesses and time test disabled workers to assess their efficiency compared to what is considered standard work for minimum wage to determine their pay. 

The national average wage of workers under this disability provision is $3.34 per hour, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Georgia’s minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, a floor set by the federal minimum for most workers who don’t receive tips as part of their compensation. In contrast, the disability provision has no floor on the wage set by the certificate holder.

Advocacy groups rallied at the state Capitol last week to campaign for a 21st-century update to this 80-year-old practice.

“Times have evolved on the ways and best practices around supporting people with disabilities,” said Amy Price of Advancing Employment, a technical assistance center for employees with disabilities based at the University of Georgia.

“These entities should never be employing people,” said Doug Crandell, director of Advancing Employment. “They receive state and federal funding to help rehabilitate people, not keep them in as cheap labor for life.”

Bruce Arnold, 52, is a living testament. Arnold, a Georgian with visual impairment, has worked as a garden associate at Home Depot for 10 years after toiling for subminimum wage at Woodright Industries, a community rehabilitation center that has since given up its federal certificate. 

“It wasn’t what I wanted for myself,” Arnold said. “I wanted more. I took the move to get a job, get a roof over my head and be able to provide for myself.” 

He also provides for his wife of 22 years and raised three children. Making a fair wage made all the difference for him. 

“It’s done a lot,” Arnold said. “I mean, I own my house and everything, and it just made it a lot easier.”

Georgians with disabilities, as well as parents, advocacy groups and community rehabilitation centers all worked together in crafting Cooper’s bill. The Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities brought subject and legislative expertise to the table while Advancing Employment contributed a network of affected families and practitioners.

Since the bill’s drafting, the number of subminimum wage license holders dwindled from 14 to the current eight. Cooper’s bill states that these remaining certificates will be phased out by July 1, 2026, with a stipulation requiring pay of at least half of the minimum wage between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2026.

Financial support for this transition will come from the federal Subminimum Wage to Competitive Integrative Employment grant. The Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency applied for the grant, which has already funded two providers through the process. 

“I think it’s common knowledge that the time has come and gone,” said D’Arcy Robb, executive director of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities. “We’re having this new generation of leaders coming out of institutes of higher education for whom people with intellectual and developmental disabilities working and being part of the community is just their norm.”

A complementary bill to Cooper’s, Senate Bill 384, is set to make state agencies submit strategic plans to the Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator’s office to recruit and retain employees with disabilities. 

“It makes the state be the example so that we don’t have to regulate private industry,” said Charlotte Densmore, policy director of the council. 

“It’s really a win-win because people with disabilities are a severely under-tapped labor pool,” said Robb. “We need a broader talent pool, and we need to compete. So this enhances our state workforce and supports people with disabilities.”

Senate Bill 384 passed its chamber on Monday with a vote of 51-1. Cooper’s bill must clear the House this week to have a smooth path to the governor’s desk this year. Crossover Day is Thursday, when bills must move from one chamber to the other for potential passage this year.

“This really makes me think of the quote from Maya Angelou,” said Robb. “’I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.’

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Georgia Recorder under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.