Friday, March 8, 2019

Did we lose our chance to end wage discrimination?

  • Call the legislative hotline: 1.800.562.6000.
Washington leads the nation when it comes to supporting people with developmental disabilities to work in integrated settings. The national average is 19 percent supported in integrated jobs; here it is 87 percent. We do this by helping people find the right job and follow up with training specific to that job. In states that rely on subminimum wages to spur employment, as few as 1 percent of people with developmental disabilities receiving employment supports are being supported in integrated settings.
Or translated – being helped to find and keep normal jobs, with fair pay, alongside other members of the community.
More than any other state, we have shown the nation that even people with the most significant support needs can work successfully in competitive integrated employment at minimum wage or higher.
Over the past seven years, the number of individuals in Washington most impacted by their disabilities (high acuity) who are working in competitive, integrated environments has nearly tripled from 405 to 1,211.

We achieved this because people with disabilities said they did not want sheltered employment, and service providers listened. Providers like Morningside and At Work! stopped offering services in sheltered environments and transitioned – successfully – to what is known as an individual supported employment model. Employers like Microsoft and the City of Seattle launched supported employment programs for people with disabilities. And when they saw benefits, they spread the word. They were finding new talent with high retention rates and their workforce showed more empathy.
The timing - we thought - to end subminimum wages for people with disabilities was spot on. The Arc of King County presented at a work session on the topic this fall to the House labor committee, and we cheered when two bills were introduced to end the practice.
Most subminimum wages in Washington are associated with sheltered, or prevocational work, which was a type of employment service paid for with Medicaid long-term support funds. A decision at the federal level five years ago said those supported employment funds could no longer be used in segregated settings. So Washington state has been phasing that model out. In July, there were just 132 people getting services in sheltered settings and the state was on track to have everyone moved to new services by the March 2019 deadline. 
The question now facing Washington is whether we want to see two salary systems in integrated employment. As public policy, do we want to continue to say people with disabilities don’t count when it comes to minimum-wage protection - even when doing the same job alongside non-disabled co-workers?
Last week, it looked like Washington was ready to say no, and that workers who happened to have disabilities should get minimum wage protection.
This week ... well, this week we aren't sure. One bill died after a heated public hearing. An expected vote did not happen on the other bill. Advocates with disabilities crowded the hallways in Olympia this week to urge passage of the bill, but it is not clear their voices were heard.
Washington’s law allowing subminimum wages for people with disabilities dates to 1959. It predates the Americans with Disabilities Act and other civil rights law. When it passed, schools could legally refuse to educate people with disabilities. Allowing subminimum wages allows employers to treat people with disabilities differently. No class of employees should be marginalized, and minimum wage protections should be just that. Protections. For everyone.
You can comment on this bill directly using the legislature's online form, here.
You can also call the legislative hotline: 1.800.562.6000.

- Ramona Hattendorf, Director of Advocacy, The Arc of King County
The Arc of King County protects and promotes the civil and human rights of people with developmental disabilities.