King County Council is moving forward with a proposal to ensure that workers with disabilities receive at least minimum wage if they work for the county or a business contracted to work with the county.
Workers with disabilities can be paid less than minimum wage under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), a federal law passed in 1938 that put down the basic parameters around worker protections and minimum wage that mostly persist to the present day.
The idea was that a disabled worker wouldn’t be able to produce as much as an able-bodied employee, and that allowing employers to pay them less would boost employment of people with disabilities.
That thinking is behind the times, said King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, who pushed the issue before the council.
“This idea of equity and fairness and recognition of the value of humans and all people is not something that has been a partisan issue by any means,” Upthegrove said. “I think it’s a very simple, doable step that we can take as a county that enshrines our values in the ordinance.”
The injustice of subminimum wage has been one that Shaun Bickley, advocacy specialist with The Arc of King County, has been working on for years before he came to the organization.
Bickley served on Seattle’s Disability Commission when the city moved to stop issuing certificates that allowed employers to pay subminimum wages.
The new ordinance would make King County the second county to end the practice of paying subminimum wages, Bickley said.
That is critical to people with disabilities who deserve the dignity afforded in being paid for their work, but it can’t stop there, said Marci Carpenter, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Washington.
“What I would like to see is a national law that covers all employers,” Carpenter said.
The ordinance won’t have a massive impact locally, because King County already pays the 55 “supported workers” it employs at least minimum wage.
It is also unlikely to make waves with companies with which King County contracts or sub contracts because, according to the federal department of labor, there are only 15 companies employing 380 people with disabilities in the state that take advantage of certificates to allow them to pay their employees with disabilities sub minimum wages.
The move does send an important signal that people with disabilities should be treated with the same dignity and respect as their coworkers, Upthegrove said.
“This is predicated on the assumption that the employer is doing a favor for someone with disabilities,” he said. “By making the change the fundamental opportunity it provides is for someone to provide for themselves, to make enough money to have the independence everyone wants.”
The county ordinance is the latest in a series of moves at the city and state level to advance the rights of people with disabilities. The city of Seattle stopped issuing certificates to pay subminimum wage in 2017, and the state passed a law in its 2019 legislative session requiring that state employees with disabilities were paid at least minimum wage beginning in July 2020.
Private companies can, for the most part, still engage in the practice if they apply for a certificate from the state or federal government.
Sub-minimum wages have been around “for eons,” but people with disabilities can be productive members of the workforce if given reasonable accommodations, said Kimberly Meck, executive director of the Alliance of People with disabilities, a nonprofit that advocates for disability rights based in Seattle.
“There shouldn’t be a difference in how you pay that individual,” Meck said. “What a lot of people seem to forget is that a disability is one of those characteristics that should not be discriminated against.”
While there is a degree to which the King County Council ordinance won’t move mountains, it’s still important for elected officials to take a stand on disability rights.
“As a developmentally disabled person, it’s meaningful to me that I have civil rights in the government that I live under,” Bickley said. “It does have momentum toward ending this practice nationwide.”
Still, passing such an ordinance also comes with risk to the disabled community. Taking away the possibility of paying an employee a sub-minimum wage could cause employers to steer away from hiring people with disabilities, and those who qualify for disability social security have to be careful about how much income they make.
Qualifying income was one of the reasons that Northwest Center, which places people with disabilities into work, gave for paying its employees sub-minimum wage without a certificate, according to an article from Patch.com.
The company subsequently slashed hours for workers with disabilities, according to the article.
Ultimately, employers need to value people with disabilities and learn how to support them and give them tasks that maximize the inherent capacity of the individual. That’s also good for the company, Meck said.
“I wish employers would stop looking at disabilities and start looking at abilities, because that’s what it is,” Meck said. “Every person has their own unique abilities.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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