Disability advocates split on ‘sub-minimum wage’ law

Updated: Feb. 10, 2021 at 3:37 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - A South Carolina legislator is pushing to end the use of a federal act that allows employers to pay people with disabilities less than minimum wage.

Lexington Republican Senator Katrina Shealy is sponsoring a joint resolution that would prohibit the use of Section 14(c) Certificates.

Employers can apply for a Section 14(c) Certification of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 that grants them the right to pay workers with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

“This bill would develop a task force to begin a three year plan to phase out sub-minimum wage,” Able South Carolina Executive Director Kimberly Tissot said. “It’s a dinosaur of a piece of legislation that passed in 1938. A lot things have changed since 1938. We are working. We are going to school. We are more independent.”

The federal government tracks organizations with certifications.

Currently, there are nine places with active certifications and 11 more pending. Those organizations employ nearly 1,200 people below minimum wage. The pandemic has had an impact on these numbers.

In January 2020, there were 33 employers, employing 2,764 people at sub-minimum wage.

“There is no other population that is segregated in employment and pays people less than minimum wage that this would be allowed,” Tissot said. “It’s just really a lack of understanding about people with disabilities not understanding their abilities at all. We can be work and we can be an essential, viable employees and there is evidence to show that.”

All nine of the organizations in South Carolina currently utilizing the Section 14(c) Certificates are associated with county Departments of Disabilities and Special Needs. These are organizations that work, in part, to help people with disabilities find jobs and develop vocational skills that will help them become more employable.

Disabilities Board of Charleston County Executive Director Evelyn Turner says the sub-minimum wage is not a bad thing. She argues it is helping hundreds of people with disabilities develop skills and work towards minimum wage and above.

“We have a group of folks who aren’t able to work competitively and this is their work and they enjoy coming to work. It gives them something meaningful to do,” Turner said. “They are paid, but they are paid at a rate based on their production skills.”

She also said the paperwork involved in getting and maintaining a certificate is intense. A time study is done with each employee that pits their production ability against that of an able-bodied person. The pay rate is then derived from that. The study is redone every six months.

“The sub-minimum wage gives us the ability to give people who have profound and severe disabilities the experience to work,” Turner said.

Currently, DBCC has the most employees in the state using the sub-minimum wage with 322 employees according to the U.S. Department of Labor. DBCC employs people through places like a bakery and a woodshop. Turner says if the certificate goes away, those folks could be out of a job.

“If sub-minimum wage goes away, the biggest impacts will be on our folks who have severe disabilities who will no longer be able to work in our programs,” Turn said. “We won’t be able to keep the contracts. We won’t be able to continue to have a work opportunity for them.”

Turner says that would be a tragedy because having a job is not just about how much you make. It’s also about being part of a community.

“A lot of our people have a sense of belonging because they come to work. They have a social network of their coworkers and they would be missing out on that,” Turner said. “That’s very sad because a lot of times folks with disabilities and their families are very isolated.”

The resolution received its first reading on Tuesday and was referred to the Committee on Labor, Commerce and Industry.

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