Advocates aim for more and better-paying jobs for people with disabilities, who sometimes make less than minimum wage

Tabitha Mueller
Tabitha Mueller
LegislatureState Government

During the 2019 legislative session, a bill designed to phase out “subminimum wage” — the practice of paying disabled employees less than the minimum wage and sometimes as little as three to four cents an hour — died without a vote.

But the push is not over. With help from a state grant, disabilities rights advocates along with the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities are convening roundtables with employers to discuss roadblocks to hiring people with disabilities. Beginning in August, they plan to work with legislators to submit bill draft requests addressing wage and employment challenges.

"What I'm hoping for is that ... we're able to bring state agencies together in a real spirit of collaboration around a subpopulation of individuals within our state who have really seen their rights sort of trampled upon to some degree historically," CJ Fields, an education programs professional with the Office of Inclusive Education at the Nevada Department of Education, told The Nevada Independent. "It's about having them have the same opportunity and rights in our society as their typically developing peers."

In a meeting Wednesday morning, roughly 40 representatives from state and local agencies, school districts, nonprofits and the disability community gathered in two conference rooms, one in Reno and the other in Las Vegas, to discuss employment opportunities and educational resources for people with disabilities. Their efforts come by way of a grant through the Governor's Council on Developmental Disabilities that aims to develop legislative solutions to increase internship and work opportunities for people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities.

Nancy Brune, the executive director of the Guinn Center, steered the conversation along with Fields and Erik Jimenez, a disability rights advocate and senior policy director for the state treasurer's office.

"People with disabilities are often segregated, for lack of better word, in society. They go to special schools, they go to separate classrooms, they're not integrated, so then when they leave that system, first of all, their normally developing peers don't know how to interact with them, and they don't know how to interact with the world around them," Jimenez said. "The bigger goal of this grant is one to get everyone talking, but how do we make this a little bit more inclusive state, particularly when it comes to workforce development?"

There’s also the issue of a wage disparity. Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act allowed companies to pay disabled workers less than minimum wage as a way to incentivize hiring workers with disabilities. Supporters of subminimum wages say that it helps disabled workers enter the workforce in “sheltered workshops” paying less than minimum wages.

But critics say it leaves disabled workers vulnerable to exploitation. Even though the Legislature did not pass a bill barring the practice, the City of Reno passed a resolution in January 2019 prohibiting subminimum wages for disabled contract workers.

Reno Councilwoman Jenny Brekhus pushed back against arguments that lower wages allow disabled workers to find work, saying, “‘Look, the piecemeal [approach] — the subminimum wage — is not helpful to building inclusive work environments.’”

On the federal level, the Democratic-controlled House passed the Raise the Wage Act with bipartisan support by a 231 to 199 vote last summer. The bill proposes raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2025 and, within the same time frame, would phase out subminimum wages as well as eliminate Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. 

All three of Nevada’s Democratic House members co-sponsored the bill in addition to 202 other representatives. The concept, however, likely faces a bleak future in the Republican-controlled Senate.

At the roundtable, attendees swapped ideas for connecting people with disabilities to job opportunities that match their interests as well as methods of reaching out to employers who might be hesitant to hire people with disabilities. They also talked about strategies to remove stigmas, teach self-advocacy and hold people with disabilities as well as their employers to high standards. 

If Congress or the Legislature eventually does eliminate subminimum wages, Fields said he hopes the work that various agencies and nonprofits are doing now can help the state transition.

"As we move away from [subminimum wages], how do our systems evolve to support students with more significant disabilities entering the workforce competitively?" he said. "That systemic shift is going to be an issue for our state, and so we just want to make sure that there's some real thought and energy put into that." 


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