A sub-minimum wage or no wage at all?

On Thursday, the Minnesota House’s Labor and Industry Finance and Policy Committee will consider HF 2513, a bill which would abolish sub-minimum wages for people with disabilities. If enacted, the bill would have drastic consequences for about 70 day and employment centers — also known as “sheltered workshops” — across the state that benefit from a special allowance that permits them to pay disabled workers below the minimum wage.

When a similar bill was proposed last session, supporters argued that:

Fundamentally, this is a civil rights issue,” said Natasha Merz, assistant commissioner at the Department of Human Services (DHS), which supports the shift away from subminimum wage work. “Work is one of the main ways that humans create community…and if we only rely on service models that have the tendency to isolate and segregate people, then we’re cutting off their opportunity to be fully contributing members of society.

Of course, this assumes that the alternative to employment in these centers is employment somewhere else. In fact, the alternative might be no employment at all. In that case, the consequences could be devastating. As one correspondent wrote to the Star Tribune:

I have a nephew with Angelman syndrome, a serious genetic disability. He is nonverbal and requires 24/7 care. But he is highly social. He loves being around “his people.” If supervised and motivated, he can perform some of those “menial” tasks. Sheltered workshop environments gave him an opportunity to interact with others and to enjoy the benefits of meaningful work that suited his abilities. His work provided him social interactions with others of varying skills.

I don’t know the number of people who will forever lose such opportunities to get out of the house and to work in a safe and structured environment. For my nephew and his parents, it was never about the money. He made only $70 one year. His parents put the money in his “fun money pouch.” He knew it was money he had earned. His parents helped him spend it on fun activities.

The highly supervised work structure helped him be more responsive when he was with his personal care attendant. The program saved his parents thousands of dollars in paid professional care.

Between COVID and the closing of the few remaining work programs, my nephew now has few opportunities to get out of the house and be in society. The structured workshops had kind staff who labored diligently to provide individuals with serious disabilities some of the joys and rewards of work.

Minnesota’s model of disability employment can, in fact, be seen as a success. According to the Center for Research on Disability, 51.5% of Civilians with Disabilities Aged 18-64 Years Living in the Community were employed in Minnesota in 2022, the eighth highest rate in the United States. That rate comes, in part, from people like that gentleman with Angelman syndrome who would not be employed without the sheltered workshops. In 2020, 98% of comments submitted to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission for a report on this issue supported keeping such programs in place.

Research suggests that if this bill passes the “not so abled” will suffer. Prof. Carlisle Ford Runge of the University of Minnesota points out that:

Evidence from three other states that have eliminated below-minimum wages is deeply disturbing, as reported in 2018 by a national group representing autistic adults. In Maine, two-thirds of disabled former workshop employees are now unemployed. Those who are still working work an average of 12 hours a week, the lowest average in the country. In the state of Washington, 80% of those with severe cognitive impairment remain unemployed. In Vermont, there are now fewer developmentally disabled adults in supported employment than in 2002, when employment workshops closed. As the document citing these failures states in conclusion: “When sheltered workshops close, participants often end up idle at home, not in competitive, minimum wage jobs.”

There is a fundamental policy question here: We all wish that disability carried no wage penalty but the sad reality is that in some cases it does and we cannot magic it away with the wave of a legislative wand. Reality often gives us a choice between a sub-optimal outcome and an even more sub-optimal one. In those situations – in this situation – we ought to choose the former instead of pretending that some third option exists. The personal costs of pursuing such fantasies will be devastating. We hope that HF 2513 does not pass.