Maryland lawmakers this month passed a bill that would do away with special wage certificates that allow employers to pay disabled workers according to productivity rather than hours worked. The law affects all 36 of Maryland’s “sheltered workshops” — nonprofit organizations that hire people with disabilities at subminimum wages to perform basic tasks like assembling products, hanging clothes, or picking up trash.
Some 420,000 Americans with disabilities are employed this way nationally, some at a rate of just pennies per hour. The average Marylander working under this arrangement makes less than $4 per hour — an unjust rate that no longer jives with modern attitudes toward disability, advocates say.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jeff Waldstreicher (D), says the bill is a victory for civil rights.
“By passing HB 420 and SB 417, we have upheld Maryland’s highest ideals,” he wrote in a public statement. “Marylanders are a compassionate, caring people. We believe in the dignity of every individual, in equal rights.”
In addition to boosting wages, the bill aims to desegregate Maryland’s workforce over the next four-and-a-half years. The Department of Disabilities will reallocate state and Medicaid funding to promote employment in “competitive, integrated workplaces” rather than in sheltered, segregated workshops. The state will pick up the tab for planning workers’ transitions to integrated employment.
“People thrive in a diverse workplace,” Waldstreicher told ThinkProgress. “Most of these workers want this transition, and we want to help it go smoothly.”
Legislators have worked closely with the sheltered workshops, and the majority are on board. They were initially concerned that higher wages would displace workers, but the state’s integrated employment plan assuaged their fears.
Disability advocates applauded the legislation, saying sheltered workshops are ineffective and reforms are long overdue.
“[Workshops] offer the employees no opportunities to be part of their community or to make enough money to support themselves,” the Autistic Self Advocacy Network said in a statement commending the Maryland legislation.
“Sheltered workshops often rely on outdated, non-mechanized production processes — which are poor vehicles for developing the skills real employers need in the open market economy,” writes University of Michigan law professor Samuel Bagenstos in a report to the National Federation of the Blind.
Indeed, only 5 percent of sheltered workshop employees leave to take a job in the community, according to a 2001 investigation by the Government Accountability Office.
The bill is now on the desk of Gov. Larry Hogan (R). Waldstreicher told ThinkProgress he’s “positive” the governor will sign it into law.
These developments in Maryland are part of a turning tide against paying disabled workers less than minimum wage. Last month, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton expressed support for eliminating the subminimum wage nationwide.
“We’ve got to figure out how we get the minimum wage up and include people with disabilities in the minimum wage,” Clinton said when a young lawyer with autism asked her about the minimum wage exemption. “There should not be a tiered wage.”
And in 2014 President Obama included workers with disabilities in his federal minimum wage hike — guaranteeing minimum wage for some 50,000 federal contract employees with disabilities.
This blog originally appeared at ThinkProgress.org on April 20, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Cory Herro comes to ThinkProgress from California, where he writes columns for The Stanford Daily and tutors rowdy middle schoolers. He likes to play pickup hoops and surf, even though his skills are rudimentary. Cory is pursuing a bachelor’s in public policy with a focus on poverty policy.