House committee chairman wants to end subminimum wage for workers with disabilities • Georgia Recorder

Eight community rehabilitation providers in Georgia legally pay 245 workers with disabilities minimum wage.

State legislation that emerged from the Industry and Labor Committee aims to eradicate the practice.

“I just couldn’t believe we were still allowing it in Georgia,” said House Health Committee Chairwoman Marietta GOP Rep. Sharon Cooper, the bill’s lead sponsor.

For her co-sponsorship of House Bill 1125Peachtree Corners Republican Rep. Scott Hilton, the matter is personal.

“As the father of a child with a disability, I want him, my son, 14-year-old Chase, to have a happy, healthy and productive job when he grows up and earn a wage he deserves,” Hilton said.

The eight community rehabilitation providers have certificates authorizing them to pay a minimum wage required by a section of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Providers hire local companies to do the work and test temporary disabled workers to assess their efficiency compared to what is considered standard work for minimum wage to determine their salary.

The national average wage for workers under this disability plan is $3.34 per hour US Commission on Civil Rights. Georgia's minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, a floor set by the federal minimum wage for most workers who do not receive tips as part of their compensation. In contrast, disability insurance does not provide for a lower limit for the salary set by the certificate holder.

Advocacy groups gathered at the state Capitol last week to advocate for a 21st century update of this 80-year-old practice.

“Times have evolved in the ways and best practices to support people with disabilities,” said Amy Price of Advancing Employment, a technical assistance center for employees with disabilities at the University of Georgia.

“These companies should never employ people,” said Doug Crandell, director of Advancing Employment. “They receive state and federal funding to rehabilitate people, not to keep them as cheap labor for life.”

Bruce Arnold, 52, is a living witness. Arnold, a Georgian with visual impairment, has worked as a yard worker at Home Depot for 10 years after working for sub-minimum wages at Woodright Industries, a community rehabilitation center that has since relinquished its state certification.

“It wasn’t what I wanted for myself,” Arnold said. “I wanted more. I took the step to get a job, to have a roof over my head and to be able to support myself.”

He also supports his wife of 22 years and raised three children. A fair wage made all the difference for him.

“A lot has happened,” said Arnold. “I mean, I own my house and everything, and that just made it a lot easier.”

Georgians with disabilities, as well as parents, advocacy groups and community rehabilitation centers all worked together to draft Cooper's bill. The Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities provided technical and legislative expertise, while Advancing Employment contributed a network of affected families and practitioners.

Since the bill was drafted, the number of minimum wage license holders has fallen from 14 to the current eight. Cooper's bill states that these remaining certificates will expire by July 1, 2026, with the condition that at least half of the minimum wage must be paid between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2026.

Financial support for this transition is provided by the federal Subminimum Wage to Competitive Integrative Employment grant. The Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency applied for the grant and has already funded two providers through the process.

“I think it's common knowledge that the time has come and gone,” said D'Arcy Robb, executive director of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities. “We have this new generation of leaders who are coming from higher education institutions and for whom working and participating in the community is normal for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

A supplementary bill to Cooper's, Senate Bill 384shall require state agencies to submit to the Office of the Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator strategic plans for recruiting and retaining employees with disabilities.

“It gives the state a role model so we don’t have to regulate the private sector,” said Charlotte Densmore, the council’s policy director.

“It really is a win-win situation because people with disabilities are a severely underutilized workforce pool,” Robb said. “We need a broader talent pool and we need to be competitive. So this strengthens our state workforce and supports people with disabilities.”

Senate Bill 384 passed Monday with a vote of 51-1. Cooper's bill must pass the House this week to move smoothly to the governor's desk this year. Crossover Day is Thursday, when bills this year must be moved from one chamber to the other for possible passage.

“This really reminds me of the Maya Angelou quote,” Robb said. “‘I then did what I could. “Now that I know better, I do better.”