A Kansas plan to help low-wage employers with disabilities is angering advocates

Wages of disabled workers
Patrick Chapman, 27, on Thursday, March 2, 2023, at The Golden Scoop, an Overland Park, Kan., ice cream and coffee shop, employed workers with developmental disabilities and paid them above minimum wage.

Heather Hollingsworth / AP

Kansas lawmakers are considering a proposal that most disability rights advocates would encourage employers to pay below the minimum wage, bucking a national trend.

The Kansas House bill would expand the state income tax credit for goods and services purchased from vendors that hire disabled workers, doubling the total allowed to $10 million annually.

Sellers currently qualify by paying all disabled workers the minimum wage, but the measure allows sellers to pay some workers less if they don’t participate in the purchase of goods and services to receive the tax credit. Supporters say the bill would allow more vendors to participate and increase employment and vocational training opportunities for people with disabilities.

The debate in Kansas began as employers nationally moved to pay at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. About 122,000 disabled workers received less in 2019, compared with about 295,000 in 2010, according to a report to Congress from the U.S. Government Accountability Bureau in January.

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

“I feel good about it,” he said.

According to her mother, Michelle Lockwood, employers who pay less than minimum wage are not conducive to independence.

Neil Romano, a member of the National Council on Disabilities, added, “It’s completely against the grain of history.”

But advocates and operators of other programs that have questioned their pay say the severity of some physical, intellectual and mental disabilities makes such programs impossible to eliminate without depriving people of valuable opportunities.

Cottonwood Inc. of Lawrence, Kansas. handles packaging for some companies. His salary is based on the industry standard of more than $15 an hour adjusted for worker productivity. As workers become more productive, they earn higher wages.

CEO Colleen Himmelberg said Cottonwood helps workers who need personal support that other employers don’t offer.

“They’re not helping someone to the bathroom or cleaning up an accident. That’s the truth,” Himmelberg said. “But that person can work here and get paid.”

According to Pat Jonas, president and CEO of the Wichita, Kansas-based Cerebral Palsy Research Foundation, the goal is a “user-friendly” tax credit program that has taken the burden off some retailers. If employers currently wish to participate while also maintaining sub-minimum wage jobs as vocational training, they must create a new, separate company or non-profit that pays minimum wage or above.

“It’s unfortunate that everyone can’t move in the same direction,” Jonas said, adding that the fund always pays at or above minimum wage.

Thirteen states, including California, Colorado, and Tennessee, ban below-minimum-wage jobs for people with disabilities. Virginia lawmakers sent a bill to Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin last month, and Congress has a bipartisan proposal for a national ban.

Andy Traub, a human resources consultant in the Kansas City area who works with The Golden Scoop and much larger companies, said there may be limited space for sheltered workshops, but “not as a default setting.” Disability services groups should first help them find “competitive” jobs, he said.

Federal law allowing exemptions from paying the minimum wage dates back to the 1930s. This is based on the premise that lower pay compensates for perceived lower productivity among disabled workers, and that exempt employers should regularly survey how quickly employees perform their jobs. A January report to Congress found that 51% of exempt employers earn less than $3.50 an hour and nearly 2% earn less than 25 cents an hour.

Some advocates say they still struggle with vestiges of decades-old attitudes that institutionalized and untrained many disabled people.

They point to a mid-February meeting of a Kansas legislative committee that outlined provisions for the tax credit proposal. The chairman of the committee reviewing the bill, state Rep. Sean Tarwater, a Republican from the Kansas City area, defended the programs that pay below the minimum wage.

“They’re people who really can’t do anything,” Tarwater told his committee. “If you take away programs like this, they will rot at home.”

A few days later, Tarwater said he was referring to the severely disabled. But his comments alarmed national and state disability rights groups.

Connecticut state Rep. Jane Garibay, D-Hartford County, said getting a fair wage is “part of being valued as a human being.” She lives with her adult nephew, who has Down syndrome, and is sponsoring a bill that would require Connecticut employers to pay the state minimum wage of $15 an hour to workers with intellectual disabilities if they can hire them.

“As a woman, I seem to be paid less than a man for doing the same job. We’ve been there, haven’t we? Garibay said. “If you’re doing the same job, it should be equal pay.”

In the Kansas City area, Golden Scoop, a nonprofit ice cream shop that opened in April 2021, pays its workers $8 plus tips, higher than the state’s $7.25. Its president and CEO, Amber Schreiber, credits disabled workers as loyal and motivated. Golden Scoop hopes to open another store and ice cream factory.

In Washington, D.C., Melwood, a non-profit organization, has been eliminating minimum wage jobs since 2016. President and CEO Larissa Kautz said Melwood was forced to close a print shop that employed people with disabilities, but it took off. recycling sorting service. The organization does public landscaping throughout the area, and 900 to 1,000 of its 1,300 workers have significant disabilities, he said.

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

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