A subminimum wage for people with disabilities is long overdue for extinction.
In 2015, I was a first-term state legislator. Sen. Roger Katz, a Republican from Augusta, sponsored legislation to phase out this lawful mechanism used by employers to pay people with disabilities less than the minimum wage. The bill’s inability to gain bipartisan traction would be my greatest source of frustration and disappointment.
Those who testified in favor of the bill spoke passionately about their desire to work and to be compensated fairly. Avery Olmstead of Old Town uses a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy. His testimony at the public hearing neatly captures why I remain committed to ensuring this policy expires. He said, “For me what it comes down to is respect. … I truly believe we will be sending a signal to the citizens of Maine … that all people have value regardless of their ability or disability.”
The Bangor Daily News’ recent coverage on the subminimum wage for people with disabilities places the issue back into the limelight. As reported in the article, only one employer in the state continues to pay some employees with disabilities less than the minimum wage. The employer, Skills Inc., has paid an employee as little as $2.14 per hour. According to the article, between 2001 and 2016, Skills Inc. accrued 75 wage violations from the U.S. Department of Labor. The violations represented one-fourth of all subminimum wage violations in Maine during this time. That is unacceptable.
Also troubling is the lack of oversight. An interview with the Maine Department of Labor revealed employers with subminimum wage certificates are not under enhanced scrutiny. If employers are legally permitted to pay employees less than the minimum wage, there ought to be specific procedures for adequately assessing compliance with the law. It should not be business as usual at the Department of Labor, because a business with a subminimum wage certificate is not operating as a usual business entity.
The University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability releases an annual report with trend data concerning people with disabilities. The report highlights the employment rates of people with disabilities in each state. Wyoming led with 57.1 percent of people with disabilities employed. Twelve states had more than 40 percent of people with disabilities employed. Thirteen states including New Hampshire, our neighbor, had employment rates of more than 35 percent. Maine joined 12 states for the lowest employment rates in the country. In fact, Maine had the largest gap in employment between people without disabilities and those with disabilities.
New Hampshire’s legislature removed the subminimum wage for people with disabilities in 2015. Our neighboring state, instead, focuses on vocational rehabilitation and assisting employers that hire people with disabilities. A subminimum wage is an antiquated “solution” that misunderstands what people with disabilities have to offer.
An article from BusinessNH Magazine reviewed the successes at many of the state’s companies, including Home Depot. The article states, “Fran Cianci, district human resources manager for Home Depot … says her company’s commitment to diversity in hiring has meant finding ways to adapt some jobs so someone with a physical or developmental disability can excel.”
In 2013, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce released a report that indicated that 10,000 Mainers with disabilities must join the workforce in the coming years to meet demand. Employers in Maine like Volk Packaging Corp., located in Biddeford, prove it can be done. The company employs those with hearing impairment, visual impairment, and people on the autism spectrum. This is well-earned, gainful employment.
I am confident Maine can join New Hampshire and take this subminimum wage off the books. As a state of innovative doers and go-getters, we can connect more people with disabilities to employment where the pay is equitable and fair. I think we could even challenge Wyoming’s top employment rate of people with disabilities. As Avery Olmstead from Old Town made clear, this is about respect. People with disabilities deserve our respect. We have a moral obligation to one another, as friends and neighbors, to write-off policies undermining this deserved respect. It’s just that simple.
Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, is serving his second term in the Maine House. He is the House chairman of the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.