Last year, the Seattle Commission for People with Disabilities, decided that Seattle needed to eliminate the special certificates that employers could utilize that would allow them to pay specific employees with specific disabilities a wage less than the minimum wage for specific jobs. Typically, these jobs are based on productivity. Many times people with profound intellectual and complex disabilities are not as productive as a non-disabled peer. This is not an ableist comment but one of fact. It’s not a matter of just teaching someone a skill but one of providing appropriate supports to enable integration for those who need support.
Then Mayor Ed Murray, stated ““The point of our historic $15 minimum wage law was to build universal equity in Seattle,” said Murray, according to a press release. “A loophole allowing subminimum wages for disabled workers has undermined that goal. We are correcting that error to make good on our promise and our values.” (Seattle Weekly, August 18, 2017.)
It’s unfortunate that this population already is greatly under-employed and also unfortunately, legislating higher pay for less productive work, will only make the unemployment rate for this population higher. This decision lacked understanding of the support needs and various services utilized by this population, disregarded research done on the national level for well planned and funded transition plans which could provide stable and sustainable employment for people with complex disabilities.
Typically, for jobs under these certificates, the employees work 10 hours or less a week. Many times there is a job coach involved – anywhere from 1:1 at all times to just checking in “once and awhile”. (The job coach is not paid by the employer but usually through public funds or grants through the Medicaid services or waivers) The wages the employee earns are reported to Social Security Administration and their monthly SSI check is reduced based on a formula and their earned wages. These people live in poverty.
I contacted the employers and employees in Seattle who were affected by this law.
One employee did have her hours cut from 15 to 12 hours a week. The employer believed that this employee was only about 75% as productive as her non-disabled peers and it was not fair to the other employees to pay the same rate. So the employer did raise the wage to minimum wage but reduced her hours. She is now looking for another job to replace the hours she is missing. This employee has a job coach who checks in occasionally or when needed but is not on site for her regular hours at work.
Another employer stated that they did raise the wage to the minimum wage but it is a hardship. This employee works 6 hours a week and has a job coach that is occasionally on site. The employee’s hours were not cut but the employer did say that they would not be able to hire other employees with complex disabilities due to this new law and therefore it is harmful for the future by limiting options.
I am still in the process of interviewing employers and employees regarding this law and how it has affected them and what they think the future may look like. So far, it appears this law was more harmful than beneficial.
It is often believed that the people who work these jobs are working full time and toiling away for pennies an hour. This is far from the real situation. The special certificates allow choice and options for both employees and employers. They are not intended to be used to hire disabled people in order to pay them less but used to encourage integration and employment of people with complex and intellectual disabilities.
This is social justice gone awry .