Kansas plans to keep low wages for disabled attorneys

Kansas lawmakers are considering a proposal that many disability rights advocates say would encourage employers to continue paying disabled workers less than minimum wage, bucking a national trend.

A Kansas House bill would expand a state income tax credit for goods and services purchased by vendors that employ disabled workers, doubling the total allowable to $10 million per year.

Providers now qualify by paying all of their disabled workers at least the minimum wage, but the measure would allow providers to pay some workers less if those workers are not involved in purchasing goods and services to earn the tax credit. Supporters argue that the bill would allow more providers to participate and improve job and training opportunities for people with disabilities.

The Kansas debate comes as employers nationally have moved to pay at least the state minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. According to a January report to Congress by the US Government Accountability Office, about 122,000 disabled workers received fewer benefits in 2019, compared to about 295,000 in 2010.

Critics argue that jobs below minimum wage prey on workers like Trey Lockwood, a 30-year-old Kansas City resident with autism who has three part-time jobs that pay more than minimum wage. At one of them, The Golden Scoop, he greets customers and makes ice cream using a “spindle,” a machine he said is like a washing machine. He has money to buy clothes and other things.

“It makes me feel good,” he said.

His mother, Michele Lockwood, said employers who pay less than minimum wage don’t encourage independence.

Neil Romano, a member of the National Council on Disability, agreed, adding, “It’s very much against the grain of history.”

But other program advocates and operators, when surveyed about their wages, said the severity of some physical, mental and intellectual disabilities means such programs cannot be scrapped without depriving people of valuable opportunities.

Cottonwood Inc. in Lawrence, Northeast Kansas handles packaging for a number of companies. Wages are based on the prevailing industry standard in the range of more than US$15 per hour adjusted for a worker’s productivity. When workers become more productive, they earn higher wages.

CEO Colleen Himmelberg said Cottonwood helps workers who need one-on-one support that other employers don’t provide.

“They’re not likely to help anyone to the toilet or clean up an accident. That’s the reality,” said Himmelberg. “But this person can work here and still earn a paycheck.”

Pat Jonas, president and CEO of the Cerebral Palsy Research Foundation in Wichita, Kansas, said the goal is a “more user-friendly” tax credit program that saves some providers from a major burden. Currently, if employers want to participate while maintaining below-minimum-wage jobs as apprenticeships, they must create a new, separate business or non-profit worker at or above the minimum wage.

“It’s just sad that not everyone can pull together,” Jonas said, adding that the foundation has always paid at least minimum wage.

According to the Association of People Supporting Employment First, which works to promote inclusive employment policies, thirteen states prohibit jobs below minimum wage for disabled workers, including California, Colorado and Tennessee. The Virginia legislature sent a bill to Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin last month, and there is a bipartisan proposal for a national ban in Congress.

Andy Traub, a Kansas City-area recruitment consultant who works with The Golden Scoop and much larger companies, said there may be limited space for sheltered workshops, but “not as a default.” Groups that serve the disabled should be encouraged to help them try “competitive” jobs first, he said.

The federal law allowing an exemption from paying the minimum wage dates back to the 1930s. It is based on the premise that lower wages offset perceived lower productivity among disabled workers, and exempt employers must regularly examine how quickly workers complete their jobs. According to the January congressional report, 51% of disabled workers from part-time employers make less than $3.50 an hour and nearly 2% make less than 25 cents an hour.

Some advocates argue that they are still struggling with the vestiges of attitudes from decades ago, when many people with disabilities were placed in institutions without an education.

They cite a mid-February meeting of a Kansas Legislative Committee that highlighted the provisions of the tax credit proposal. The chairman of the committee handling the bill, State Assemblyman Sean Tarwater, a Republican from the Kansas City area, defended programs paid below minimum wage.

“These are people who really can’t do anything,” Tarwater told his committee. “If you abolish such programs, they will rot at home.”

Days later, Tarwater said he was referring to severely disabled people. But his comments appalled national and state disability rights groups.

Connecticut State Assemblyman Jane Garibay, a Hartford-area Democrat, said fair pay is “part of being valued as a person.” She lives with an adult niece with Down syndrome and sponsors a law that would require employers in Connecticut to pay workers with intellectual disabilities the state minimum wage of $15 an hour if they can do a job.

“It’s like, as a woman, I’m making less than a man for the same job. We were there, right?” said Garibay. “If you do the same job, it should be the same pay.”

In the Kansas City area, the nonprofit ice cream shop Golden Scoop opened in April 2021 and pays its workers $8 plus tips — more than the state minimum wage of $7.25. Amber Schreiber, its President and CEO, commends disabled workers for being loyal and enthusiastic. Golden Scoop hopes to open another shop and factory to produce ice cream for wholesale.

In the Washington DC area, Melwood, a non-profit organization, has been hiring below minimum wage jobs as of 2016. President and CEO Larysa Kautz said Melwood had to close a print shop that had disabled workers doing menial jobs, but it started with a recycling sorting service. The organization does government landscaping work across the region, and between 900 and 1,000 of its 1,300 employees have significant disabilities, she said.

The January report to Congress said the number of employers with waivers that allow them to pay below minimum wage fell from more than 3,100 in 2010 to fewer than 1,600 in 2019. Romano said it should drop to 1,300 this year.

“It requires innovative thinking,” said Kautz. “But there are so many of us who have made it.”


Associated Press writer Susan Haigh contributed to this report from Hartford, Connecticut.


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