Seattle’s Department of Labor Standards (OLS) is taking public comment on a proposed rule change that would extend local minimum wage protections to disabled workers.
Currently, city and state law exempt from the minimum wage “individuals whose earning capacity is impaired by age or physical or mental deficiency or injury,” as the Revised Code of Washington puts it. The proposed change to city rules would strike the “or physical or mental deficiency or injury” part, so that the exemption only applied to underage labor.
The proposed rule change was first recommended by the Seattle Commission for People with Disabilities in June, after a four month review of sub-minimum wage practices in consultation with Councilmember Lisa Herbold’s office and county and state officials. In a letter to the Mayor and City Council, the Commission reported that there are two active exemptions, one at the Ballard First Lutheran Church and another at the Town & Country Market in Ballard. Each pays one worker $11.01 per hour instead of the current $13 minimum, according to the letter.
However, there is also another, unauthorized practitioner in Seattle, according to the Commision’s letter: the Northwest Center, a nonprofit that job-places people with disabilities. The letter says the Northwest Center has 128 workers at subminimum wage. “The lowest-paid worker under this program in Seattle makes 36 cents an hour,” read the letter.
Emily Miller, Chief People Officer at the Northwest Center, says they now employ only six disabled workers in Seattle (as janitors at the Ballard Locks, with job coaches) at subminimum wage, and that the lowest wage is a little over $8 per hour. Statewide, the Center has 73 disabled workers at subminimum wage, with sites in Spokane and Renton, she says. Miller says that the figure of 36 cents per hour cited in the Commission’s letter is not accurate for the Center’s Seattle program, but might be accurate in some cases in a different, “pre-vocational” program that is scheduled to be phased out by 2019.
OLS is currently investigating the Northwest Center over these practices.
The proposal to kill the exemption has generated “the largest amount of discussion the Disability Commission has ever received on a topic,” according to the letter. “Subminimum wage is overwhelmingly opposed by workers with disabilities.” Commissioner Shaun Bickley says, he’s unaware of public opposition to the rule change, and, according to the letter, Ballard First Lutheran, the Ballard Market, and the Northwest Center, “all … declined to comment, attend, or make any public statement on the ordinance or topic of subminimum wage” during public meetings on the proposal.
“We have not heard of any business that wants to keep the exemptions,” confirms OLS’s Cynthia Santana.
We contacted the Ballard Market to ask for comment. “We’ve always worked with people with job coaches and such, because we think it contributes to the culture of the Market, as well as making a difference for them,” says manager Mike Pedersen. “We’ve seen people who we’ve worked with grow so much, and it’s pretty special to watch them.” Pedersen said he didn’t know whether removing the exemption would affect hiring decisions in the future. “If they take that away, I guess we’ll deal with it because we love the people,” he says, “but I think it has been kind of a win-win for the people involved … Certainly there’s not the productivity that you get from other employees.”
Miller says she supports the subminimum wage as a tool for integrating disabled people into society via employment. “The whole point is to help them get to a point where potentially they could one day work at a full job,” she says. “We time study them based on their productivity next to a full-time worker, and they get paid based on their productivity…[which is] not anywhere close what even a typical worker on a bad day could do. … We’ve had a few successes where we’ve been able to transition [disabled subminimum wage workers] into other forms of employment,” says Miller, but backsliding is common.
“All this ordinance means is that their hours get drastically reduced down, and they spend more time at home, not in the community,” Miller says. “It’s a civil rights issue that is way beyond wage. It’s about inclusion.”
Eleven days after the Commission unanimously voted to recommend killing the exemption, Mayor Ed Murray ordered OLS to schedule the execution. “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.”
Typically, supporters of allowing a subminimum wage for disabled people say it helps them find employment by making their labor cheaper. Last year, the Texas Tribune paraphrased a defense of subminimum wages articulated by David Dodson, president of EXPANCO, a nonprofit that receives government contracts to employ people with disabilities: “Because many of his company’s workers have profound cognitive disabilities, they are only about 22 percent as productive as a typical employee, which means EXPANCO could not continue to employ those people at standard pay.” The Commission’s letter, by contrast, says that subminimum wages are neither necessary nor sufficient for effectively job-placing people with disabilities. “Bad job matches are the real issue,” it reads.
In 2014, Seattle began a seven-year phased-in minimum wage increase. When finished in 2021, the Seattle minimum wage will be equivalent to the value of $15 per hour in 2018 dollars, adjusted for inflation. The exemption for disabled people originated in state law, which Seattle’s minimum wage ordinance imitates.
According to a press release from OLS, there are law changes coming as well as rule changes. “This fall, OLS also will submit omnibus legislation to the Seattle City Council that will include the subminimum wage revision,” it says. “The City Council will vote on the legislation before the end of the year.”
This debate over whether to allow subminimum wages for disabled workers has been going on for years across the nation. In 2014, President Obama raised the bottom wage for federal workers (not to be confused with the federal minimum wage for American workers) to $10.10 via executive order—including for disabled workers, according to NPR. The same year, the Baltimore Sun reported that hundreds of thousands of disabled workers are employed at subminimum wages under a federal exemption, and that some disabled Maryland workers were being paid “as little as a penny an hour in recent years.”
This post has been updated with new information. An earlier version of this post misspelled Shaun Bickley’s name.