Kansas Bill Would Reward Businesses Paying Disabled People Less Than Minimum Wage

Class War
Kansas Bill Would Reward Businesses Paying Disabled People Less Than Minimum Wage
Pennies | John H Kleschinsky | Flickr

Here in the United States, the federal minimum wage is $7.25. It's not a lot. In fact, it is now worth less than the minimum wage was worth before it was raised to $7.25 in 2009 (A whopping $7.25 in 2023 dollars is $5.20 in 2009 dollars; the minimum wage in 2008 was $6.65). At this point we can probably just go ahead and assume that we're never going to raise the federal minimum wage again, so it will just keep being worth less and less until people who make it can't buy a pack of gum for what they earn in an hour.

As little as the minimum wage is worth these days, there are still some people getting paid even less than that — and I'm not even talking about servers, who should also get paid the minimum wage (plus tips). In many most states, employers are able to pay disabled workers less than minimum wage — an average of $3.34 an hour. This has been changing recently, with 13 states enacting laws requiring employers to pay people with disabilities the minimum wage.

Kansas, you will be shocked to discover, is not one of those states. There is, however, a program that offers tax credits for buying from vendors that employ people with a "physical or mental impairment that constitutes a substantial barrier to employment." It's not great, but it's not bad. It's certainly at least an incentive for businesses to hire people with disabilities and pay them at least the minimum wage.

Unfortunately, that may change soon if some lawmakers get their way. A new bill proposes to extend the tax credits to businesses that pay workers with disabilities less than the minimum wage, as well. This means that employers will be able to benefit threefold — from the labor provided by these workers, from getting to pay them less than they would have to pay workers without disabilities and from the tax credit. That doesn't seem right.

Many disability rights activists, understandably, are not too happy about this.

Via AP:

Some advocates argue they’re still battling traces of attitudes from decades ago, when many disabled people were put in institutions and not educated.

They cite the mid-February meeting of a Kansas legislative committee that highlighted the tax credit proposal’s provisions. The chair of the committee handling the bill, state Rep. Sean Tarwater, a Kansas City-area Republican, defended programs paying below the minimum wage.

“They are people that really can’t do anything,” Tarwater told his committee. “If you do away with programs like that, 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.

This bucks a national trend towards paying people with disabilities a fair wage. In 2010, 295,000 people with disabilities were paid less than minimum wage, but by 2019 that number was cut by more than 50 percent to 122,000.

The sub-minimum wage allowance for disabled people was initially established in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. While there was a lot of good in the FLSA — it set the first minimum wage, regulated child labor, established the 44-hour work week that would go down to a 40-hour work week two years later — there wasn't a lot of good for everybody. In order to get Southern lawmakers on board with it, it was adjusted to ensure it didn't benefit Black people too much. Thus, farm workers, domestic workers, food service workers, and other jobs predominantly held by people of color were exempt from the new standards. Employees with disabilities were also exempt.

There are some good points to the bill — that the program is being extended to begin with, along with a provision that "would also eliminate a requirement that individuals with disabilities work a minimum number of hours per week to qualify for health insurance coverage." But anyone who works deserves at least the paltry minimum wage we have in this country, and that needs to include people with disabilities.

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Robyn Pennacchia

Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse


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