EDITORIALS

It’s time for Maine to stop exploiting people with disabilities as cheap labor

Posted July 14, 2017, at 8:19 a.m.

In Maine, believe it or not, it’s still legal to employ people with disabilities at wages below the state minimum of $9 an hour. Referred to as the subminimum wage, workers with disabilities can legally be paid less than a dollar per hour if their employer determines their productivity is that low. There’s no minimum amount the workers can be paid.

What’s especially concerning is that there’s no independent oversight over how employers determine how “productive” their workers are, which they do by timing them at certain job tasks and then comparing their speed to the speed and pay of non-disabled workers elsewhere. What’s stopping employers from making mistakes on or fudging the time study results to save some money? Essentially nothing, unless the government happens to catch them.

One Maine nonprofit is a prime example of how workers with disabilities can be deprived of their hard-earned wages, whether intentionally or not.

Skills Inc., based in St. Albans, is the last employer left in Maine that pays people with disabilities a subminimum wage. A BDN Maine Focus investigation recently found that while Skills paid workers with disabilities as little as $2.14 per hour, top executives were making six-figure salaries. A cut of the nonprofit’s revenue-making operations, meant to fund nonprofit programming, paid for their bonuses — one of which totalled about $300,000, resulting in a pay of over half a million dollars one year for Vernon Martin, who managed the nonprofit’s former sawmill.

As Martin’s salary quadrupled and former-CEO Tom Davis’ salary doubled over the course of seven years, two investigations by the U.S. Department of Labor found that the nonprofit had violated the subminimum wage law 75 times and owed back wages to its workers with disabilities.

The way the system is set up fosters opportunities for mistakes or outright exploitation. That’s evident with the number of violations that have occurred and the total back wages owed to workers across the country. In the past two decades, there have been 77,855 subminimum wage violations across the U.S., requiring employers to pay their workers with disabilities about $16.5 million in back wages. In Maine alone, the U.S. Department of Labor has found 292 violations since 2001 where employers failed to pay workers with disabilities more than $40,000.

This system clearly isn’t working.

The subminimum wage is not the only way to ensure that people with disabilities can work. Vocational rehabilitation, available through the Maine Department of Labor, offers career counseling where counselors find, or even coordinate with local businesses to create, employment opportunities that are the right fit for their clients.

If those workers currently being paid the subminimum wage have disabilities that are so “severe” that they are not able to pursue competitive employment, then they would be perfect candidates for vocational rehabilitation. The Maine Department of Labor sorts potential clients into three categories based on the severity of their disability: Categories one and two, consisting of those with more severe disabilities, currently have no waitlist for services.

Others may claim that if workers with disabilities earn more money they will lose their disability benefits. This isn’t necessarily true. Most workers being paid the subminimum wage only work part time, which is unlikely to bring them above the income threshold that would trigger a loss of benefits. Even if they make too much, they can likely stay under the threshold by deducting costs relating to their disability, such as medication co-pays or bus passes if they are unable to drive.

While it is possible workers with disabilities can lose their monthly check if their income rises too high, workers who earn at least minimum wage have the ability to retain MaineCare coverage, even if they earn up to $62,000 a year, by paying in at a maximum of $20 a month.

With just 47 people left earning the subminimum wage at Skills — and in Maine — it’s time to phase it out, especially since many of the workers appear to be leaving their positions.

Already Congress has taken steps to limit the use of the subminimum wage. People currently working for the subminimum wage must meet with their designated state vocational rehabilitation agency to receive information from counselors about career services. As of July 10, two-thirds of Skills’ subminimum wage workers had fulfilled these requirements, and 85 percent were interested in pursuing other, higher-paying employment elsewhere through vocational rehabilitation services, according to the Maine Department of Labor.

Making a couple dollars an hour isn’t the best that workers with disabilities can do. They have their own set of skills and passions they can explore with the help of vocational rehabilitation counselors. It’s deplorable to stick people with disabilities in jobs they’re not great at, then punish them for it with incredibly low pay.

If Maine truly wants to prioritizes people with disabilities, then legislators need to eliminate the subminimum wage and support programs such as vocational rehabilitation that treat people with disabilities like people, not cheap labor.

 

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