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Disabled workers in Connecticut can make subminimum wage — but that may change

Yehyun Kim
CT Mirror

Connecticut residents with disabilities are legally allowed to be paid less than minimum wage. Some labor advocates say it’s a problem — but others support the law.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Erica E. Phillips to discuss her article, “For people with disabilities in CT, a path toward workplace inclusion,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Hello, Erica, you write that 33 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, jobs remain segregated for people with disabilities and hundreds of them earn subminimum wage. Why is that?

EP: It goes back to a law passed in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established the minimum wage nationally, but carved out people with disabilities as a one exemption to the minimum wage. And the effort at that time was to try and get employers to even consider hiring people with disabilities. And it worked, a lot of folks were able to enter the workforce. But over time, people have started to notice that it doesn't maybe make as much sense now to have a certain segment of the population that is allowed to be paid subminimum wage.

And there was an effort in the 80s that resulted in the Americans with Disabilities Act, which established that Americans with disabilities have to be included in all aspects of life and you know, school work, public places and so on. But the kind of conflicting elements of these various federal laws and a lot of philosophical conversations among providers of services for people with disabilities. And that regime kind of continues on. It is still federally legal for individuals with disabilities to be paid subminimum wage, if their productive capacity, you know, as measured against a standard is lower. So it's an intricate old law.

WSHU: Now, the reason why the Americans with Disabilities Act passed, the driving force behind that was former Connecticut Governor Lowell Weicker, who was then a U.S. Senator. He had a personal interest in doing this because he had a child who was disabled. Tell us about what his vision was for disabled Americans.

EP: In reporting this story, I came across some great old Lowell Weicker speeches about this topic. And you know, it just takes you back. It's really interesting. But again, it's particularly interesting in the context of just how long it's been since he gave those speeches, right. So he was calling out isolation and segregation inherent in existing laws. And we can imagine he probably meant the Fair Labor Standards Act. He said there was a time when we thought disabled individuals couldn't measure up and they couldn't be independent. They couldn't be in the workforce. And he said, in 1987, we've moved beyond that. And if folks have the right support, and they want to enter the workforce then they should be able to do so. Again, more than 30 years later, you almost ask " Does everyone know that?”

And again, one of the things about this topic is, on its face, the issue of subminimum wage sounds like something we definitely want to consider maybe getting rid of. But a lot of providers of employment support for people with disabilities say that the ability to pay subminimum wage allows them to provide job opportunities and training opportunities for people with disabilities who are sort of transitioning into the workplace. And so if you think about it like that, it's analogous to someone having an internship, people don't necessarily get paid full wages for some internships and so on. And so these are seen as training opportunities.

There's something called group supported employment where you're working in a group with a job coach and learning skills. And so this has allowed organizations that maybe otherwise couldn't afford to pay for minimum wage to folks to have training opportunities and be paid this lower level. So there's sort of a lot to it, there's a lot of reasons that this has continued on as a federal policy.

WSHU: And employees feel that it is a benefit to them and the disabled employee, because the disabled employee cannot fully function to the capacity of someone who is not disabled. But there seems to be a situation here where people are saying that disabled people are not always channeled to what they can do best.

EP: Yeah. So this is where we're kind of at this moment, right now we have to do some rethinking of a lot of these systems. And if there is a movement toward changing this system, which several states have already outlawed, the use of subminimum wage, they're sort of the big question. So okay, so how do we think about it? What does a new system look like?

And I had a really interesting conversation with Goodwill of Southern New England. If you're an organization that has these job programs where you pay people subminimum wage, you have what's called a 14(c) certificate. It's the segment of the Fair Labor Standards Act that allows you to pay people subminimum wage. So Goodwill of Southern New England, let its 14(c) certificate expire. And it had held that certificate for decades. That certificate expired at the end of last month.

In order to do this, a minimum wage program is pretty well regulated, it has to be certain skills. And again, like I mentioned earlier, it's measured against a standard setter, who, can do the skill at a certain pace, and then you measure other people against that pace and pay them accordingly based on how quickly they can get the task done. But that limits the work that can actually be done by folks to only the type of skills that can be measured. If that makes sense. I know we're getting a little wonky here. But this is how the law works.

So if you say we're not going to do this anymore, like Goodwill of Southern New England did, you open up the possibility of all kinds of different work that doesn't have to be measured, it doesn't have to be something that's measurable in that kind of way, that kind of manufacturing economy kind of widget driven productivity way. And so that sort of thinking about this is all different, that's the beginning of kind of a system of changes, just all these new types of options that might be open to people.

WSHU: There are 18 organizations that take part in the 14(c) in Connecticut.

EP: Right. And actually, with Goodwill of Southern New England letting its certificate expire, I suppose it's 17. Now, and again, an interesting thing about all 17 of them is that they are nonprofit community rehab programs, which are literally nonprofits that help people with disabilities find work and provide other services. So this isn't like a big company that has a certificate, you know, a big for-profit company that has a certificate is a nonprofit that's providing employment opportunities. And sometimes those are contracts with big companies.

For example, one of the organizations I talked to has job crews that clean the offices for some companies in their area. And so it is work that is being done for a private employer, but it's being done through the sort of job training provider through the nonprofit. Again, getting really wonky, but it's the whole system that exists and has existed and provides some real job support and personal support for folks who need it.

WSHU: Now you talked to some disabled people who are working. You give us the example of Joey Agostino, he seems like a very interesting person who is multifaceted too.

EP: Yeah, and I want to give a shout-out to my colleague, Yuhyun Kim, who kind of was there with Joey at work and followed him around and got some great images. He was a delight. They had a great conversation. I talked to Joey's mom about his employment history. He's had a few different jobs. And he works now a part time at Nielsen's Florist in Darien doing a bunch of different odd jobs here and there and work that needs done. And as I understand he is a delight among his coworkers, it's like a favorite colleague. He also was able to, with some grant funding, establish an LLC, because he loves music and he loves to spin records and people love having him as a DJ at parties.

This isn't in the story, but he actually has DJ’ed at a party for Katy Perry in Los Angeles. She flew him out there. Also Tim Tebow had DJ Joe at this prom that he held. So once you start thinking about employment in a different way for folks, and really identifying what they're passionate about, the possibilities kind of open up. And so Joey was just a wonderful example of going after it.

WSHU: I hope he's not being paid subminimum wage as a DJ.

EP: No.

WSHU: Now, Linda Rammler is a consultant and researcher at the University of Connecticut’s Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. She has a process that she's come up with called “Three Cups of Coffee.” Can you just tell us a little bit about that?

EP: The importance of what Linda and I talked about is, we've been talking a lot about people with disabilities and job coaches and job training. But there is the flip side of that, which is really training employers to identify and offer jobs for folks with different abilities. And in a lot of cases, folks I talked to who do this work with employers say it really does contribute to their bottom line, because they didn't realize they had actually a bunch of things that needed to get done that they didn't have the right person for. And consultants like Linda and other folks are able to identify those jobs and identify the right person and make kind of a match.

And so the "“Three Cups of Coffee” is that she meets with employers three times. The first time is to feel out this employer, someone who might be willing to kind of consider this idea and hire someone with different abilities. The second time is to visit the office and to look around, say, there's a line at the coffee machine over there. She’ll say I wonder if there's some efficiency that could be achieved if you had someone to cover for that, or what have you. And so identifying these perhaps missing pieces of the operation, whatever it might be. And then the third cup of coffee is to say, hey, I know someone, I work with someone in my organization, and they'd be a really good fit. And we are able to train them up on these things that you need done at your office, and we can make that match. And so it's a process, right? Anytime you're trying to change the way someone thinks, or you know, encourage someone to try something new, you're not going to win them over with just one cup of coffee.

WSHU: And the legislature took this on in the last legislative session. And they're giving tax breaks to businesses who hire individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

EP: Yeah, I think there's sort of a multi-pronged approach, right? So it's the cup of coffee to say, you know, would you think about this, would you consider this, but then there's also that, hey, by the way, you get a tax credit for this, if you went after it, and tried to make some of these jobs available. And, you know, people have different opinions of the right way to do it. Should employers be given a tax credit for doing something that's actually going to help their bottom line anyway if they get the right person for a job that they needed the right person for? There's debate about that. But yes, this is going to be available to employers who consider these types of jobs.

WSHU: And a bill that would have prohibited paying subminimum wage did not make it this session.

EP: Right, Connecticut's still not, we're still not at a place where the subminimum wage is going to go away. That is still very much part of the policies and practices here. And like I said, some other states have done away with it. And there is a federal effort to change that at the national level, which would in turn change it here. But for the time being Connecticut and many other states still allow for subminimum wage for these types of group supported employment situations. And that conversation didn't go anywhere at the legislature this year.

WSHU: And that affects about a little less than 500,000 people in Connecticut.

EP: Yeah, that we know of roughly less than 500,000. There are a couple agencies with 14(c) certificates that we don't actually know how many people work there. So yeah, right around.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Fairfield County. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.