Advocates of the disabled are trying to change a law that allows some employers to pay workers less than the minimum wage because they have a disability.
Federal law allows about 30 employers in Washington to pay workers less than the minimum wage because those workers "have disabilities that impair their productivity for the work being performed."
But advocates say this practice exploits people who deserve a shot at being productive citizens like everyone else.
At SKCAC Industries in Kent, teams of workers perform all kinds of tasks for dozens of local companies.
They package small cups of coffee creamer which end up on Alaska Airlines jets, they assemble boxes, and they pack medical products into small bags, among many other small jobs.
SKCAC Executive Director Debbie Meyers says most of the workers have disabilities and about 50 of them are paid below the $11 minimum wage. The wage for each employee varies and is based on what they can do.
SKCAC Industries, a non-profit that provides employment services and job coaching, is an example of an employer that is trying to move away from what they consider an antiquated model of paying some workers less than others.
“It is true that people are working at a slower pace, but I do think that with technical assistance and all the technology that we have now, that we can provide opportunities for everyone to be a benefit to an employer,” Meyers said.
There are growing efforts to end the practice of paying lower wages to disabled people. A new “Raise the Wage Act” introduced last week urges Congress to abolish subminimum wages.
And an upcoming documentary film, called Bottom Dollars, produced by the Seattle non-profit Rooted in Rights, will debut this summer, showing what producers describe as a segregated and exploited workforce.
“There's one person down here who is making two cents an hour,” said Jordan Melograna, Rooted in Rights creative director, while thumbing through documents from other states.
“They use ‘MR,’ which is a really outdated term; it stands for mentally retarded,” Melograna said.
“They don't have a lot of political power to fight back and so of course when you don't have political power to fight back you can be paid what anybody wants to pay you,” he said.
The film Bottom Dollars will also explore alternatives to subminimum wages and show examples of how employers have successfully transitioned away from lower wages.
“I don't think this can be fixed overnight and I don't think anyone is asking for that. I think the idea is to transition and to increase the wages, provide real opportunities, and not just assume that somebody is only qualified to work in a segregated setting putting together a nut and bolt, repetitively, forever,” he said.
SKCAC Industries hopes to have no more subminimum wage workers in a few years. They want to focus much more on training and coaching and placing workers in companies where people would work together, whether they have a disability or not.
“We need everyone's help, businesses have to want to be inclusive, allow us to come in and really customize a position for someone,” Meyers said.
SKCAC is making good on its commitment. They promoted worker Ken Minkler to a receptionist making more than $11 an hour. Before, he too was making below minimum wage.
“I’ve been here since 1983,” he said.
Does he enjoy the work?
SKCAC Industries wants companies to provide more opportunities for disabled workers to bring unique skill sets to conventional workplaces, where they can earn more, based not on their shortcomings, but on their abilities.
Some non-profit employers in Washington are concerned about efforts to get rid of subminimum wages. KING 5 spoke with one organization that said it would experience a significant financial challenge without this law. They spoke on the condition that KING avoid naming their group because they're concerned the attention would make them a political target.
They told KING 5 that without paying subminimum wage, they simply could not afford to exist. They say most of the disabled workers they employ have tried conventional work environments and have not found the support they need to be successful, which is why they and their guardians choose this one program with subminimum wages.