A rare bipartisan push for disability rights in Georgia – Mother Jones

Disabled people work in a workshop for the disabled, where disabled workers are often paid less than the minimum wageKim Weimer/Bucks County Courier Times/AP

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Georgia could be the next state to eliminate the subminimum wage for people with disabilities, a widespread and now largely rejected exemption from minimum wage laws that extends to about 40,000 workers with disabilities — and the first state where such an initiative would be led by Republicans. 16 states have passed bills to end or reform the practice; In its last legislative session, which ended in March, the Georgia House of Representatives passed what may be the seventeenth. It's a bill that lawmakers will likely take up again when the state's next legislative session begins in January 2025.

Politics in Georgia is turbulent, and attacks by state Republicans on LGBTQ+ rights and voting rights are causing divisions with state Democrats. Georgia Republicans hold majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Nevertheless, the bill to abolish the subminimum wage in Georgia is not entirely partisan. The bill's lead sponsor is Republican Rep. Sharon Cooper, who said at a committee hearing that she “just can't believe we're still allowing the subminimum wage.” One Democratic representative is a co-sponsor of the bill, and none have opposed its passage in the House.

In contrast, several attempts to appeal the subminimum wage law at the federal level failed, most recently in 2023. When the United States established a federal minimum wage in 1938, it made an exception for disabled workers and allowed employers to pay them less than the minimum wage—some only 22 cents per hour – through a certificate system. Many of these certificate holders also operate sheltered workshops, effectively segregated workplaces that often exclusively employ disabled people earning below minimum wage, most of whom have intellectual and developmental disabilities. There are currently only eight of these certificate holders in Georgia (as of 2024), each employing only four to 77 disabled workers.

Paying sub-minimum wages “hinders and prevents people with disabilities from having autonomy in their lives.”

“It frustrates me to see that some of these disability workshops have executive directors or CEOs making five or six-figure salaries while paying people with disabilities just pennies an hour,” said Dom Kelly, CEO of the nonprofit New Disabled South noted that the state agency Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities took the lead in pushing for the change.

According to Julie Christensen, executive director of the Association of People Supporting Employment First, what sets Georgia's legislation apart from other bills is its phase-out formula, which called for eliminating 50 percent of certificates by the first anniversary the law is enacted, then everything by the following year . That's faster than the three to five years that Christensen said is “typical” for such laws.

Disability rights used to be a bipartisan issue, with civil rights laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act signed into law by a Republican president. But that has changed, Christensen says, and disability rights policy is now seen as a more progressive cause.

“If you look at federal legislation in the current climate, it's almost entirely Democratic-led, and because of partisan politics, it's been difficult to get Republicans to get involved,” Christensen said. But both Christensen and Kelly hope Georgia's example of a Republican-led state disability rights initiative could change the minds of other GOP politicians at both the state and federal levels.

The loudest argument allegedly against the minimum wage, which is largely paid by non-disabled people I advocate on behalf of people with disabilities to ensure that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities simply are not hired elsewhere. Christensen says it's important for these proxy votes to remember that the minimum wage was not originally intended to benefit workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities – in fact, the provision was primarily intended to support veterans with disabilities.

“It should always be some kind of low-risk way to get companies to be willing to retrain people to get back to work,” she said.

People with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty in the United States than people without disabilities. In 2021, around a quarter of disabled Georgians between the ages of 18 and 64 lived below the poverty line. For disabled people who can work, a living wage is a step toward combating disability poverty – but a few dollars or even cents an hour is not. According to Kelly, “paying someone less than minimum wage hinders and prevents autonomy in their life.”

Kelly also believes that living wages for disabled workers could have a positive impact on the care economy, which is very overburdened, by helping them afford to live and receive services in their community, “rather than in an institutional setting.” . It could also mean not having to be on the waiting list for a paid carer, which could help parents and other unpaid carers in their lives.

In addition to eliminating the minimum wage, a growing number of states have passed or are considering laws to put employment first. Although the content varies, these are intended to help disabled workers integrate into the world of work and secure the services they need to succeed. Some states, like Colorado, have also recognized that “transportation is a barrier” for workers with disabilities, says Christensen, and are working to ensure those workers have the infrastructure they need to get to their jobs.

But Georgia, which already passed an Employment First law in 2018, needs “a realignment of Employment First,” Kelly told me. Georgia assigned the state Vocational Rehabilitation Agency responsibility for implementing the law; Kelly says the agency has been “an absolutely disastrous failure of people with disabilities” that has “failed to improve the reality of disability employment.”

In addition to Georgia, a growing number of states have introduced bills to prevent workers with disabilities from being paid less than others, including a New York state bill that recently received approval from the Senate Labor Committee. Illinois is also trying again to pass a minimum wage repeal – a first attempt in 2023 failed to even get a vote, and Republican state senators are still vocally opposed.