A new bill before the Maryland General Assembly would phase out the practice of paying some people with disabilities a subminimum wage for jobs they perform in sheltered workshops.
The bill has sparked a passionate response, particularly from disability advocates, who call it a civil rights issue. The first hearing for the bill was Feb. 10 with a number of people with disabilities and their allies speaking in favor. The bill, HB 420, is also called the Ken Capone Equal Employment Act.
“By guaranteeing equal protection under the law for minimum wage, individuals with disabilities will be empowered to maximize employment, economic self-sufficiency, independence, and full inclusion and integration into society,” said Ken Capone, the public policy analyst for People on the Go Maryland, one of the main disability groups advocating for HB 420, in an email.
The bill specifically targets a section of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, 14(c), which was set up to allow employers to pay below the minimum wage for those employees with disabilities that hinder their productivity.
It would phase out this practice, originally, in three years, although, with input from other parties, including agencies who run these kind of facilities, that will likely increase to four years.
This issue was actually addressed by the Baltimore Jewish Council in December 2014, where they, after hearing from both proponents and opponents, decided to call on the state to create a task force to study the issue.
The council wasn’t notified before the bill was introduced before the Assembly, said Sarah Mersky, the director of governmental relations, so their official position hasn’t changed. It is still an issue that is important to the community, however, she said.
“Right now, we have no position, but we are getting involved,” she said.
She expects the council will address the issue again in the near future.
At the time, one of the opponents who spoke out when BJC was looking at the issue was Chimes, a not-for-profit organization that helps people with disabilities find employment, whether that’s with outside companies or in its own supported facilities.
Now, the group, which employs about 800 people with disabilities in the state, is not actively opposed so much as concerned.
“We are sort of quasi-supportive of it,” said Martin Lampner, the president and CEO of Chimes. “We recognize that the system is changing.”
His main concern stems from lack of teeth in enforcing the state’s vague plan in providing resources and framework for those workers who would be affected. Of those Chimes works with in Maryland, 75 percent already make a competitive wage, he said.
The rest — largely those with complex medical problems or occasional significant behavioral issues — are in supported facilities, or sheltered workshops, and earn a wage, potentially under minimum wage, based on their productive capacity. If, after this change in the law, those people are hired at a job with fewer hours per week, the struggle will be to ensure they still have a meaningful way to spend the rest of their days.
Chimes is already working to address this issue with new initiatives. It has become a “business incubator,” meaning it provides physical space and certain services to startups in return for the business employing people with disabilities at a minimum wage or higher.
This ensures that those who need it will have services available on-site, but also brings them into an integrated environment. The organization is currently working with two businesses — Cyberspa and 800razors — and Lampner said it has so far been a success.
Capone worked at one time at a sheltered workshop and said he felt demeaned by the work, having completed a difficult computer-training program at Johns Hopkins. Instead of working with computers, however, he was earning “pennies on the dollar” doing repetitive work, he said.
“[A]s we have known since the 1960s, separate is not equal,” Capone said. “It benefits people with disabilities, as well as people without, to be able to interact with each other and learn from one another. We are a better society.”
“I think there is a genuine willingness on the part of all parties to get this right.” — Martin Lampner, president and CEO of Chimes
The bill is the result of a long study by a coalition of groups, including People on the Go, provider agencies and other advocacy groups. Proponents say it will help integrate people with disabilities and those without, which improves their health and self-sufficiency.
The whole country is moving in this direction, said Nancy Pineles, the managing attorney for developmental disabilities with the Maryland Disability Law Center, and several states already have.
“It’s definitely the right thing to do and the right time,” she said.
People don’t want to be segregated, she said. Working in an integrated environment is beneficial for everyone. Pineles is optimistic about the chances for the bill passing this session.
Despite some of his concerns, Lampner said he is encouraged by how discussions are progressing with HB 420.
“I think there is a genuine willingness on the part of all parties to get this right,” he said.