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Public Health New Mexico

Lawmakers Grapple With Sub-Minimum Wages For Workers With Disabilities

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People with intellectual and developmental disabilities often get individualized support in order to hold a job. Many work for regular pay, but a nearly century-old federal labor law allows some employers to pay these workers less than minimum wage.

Lawmakers called a task force to study this issue earlier this year. The Legislative Health and Human Services' Disabilities Concerns Subcommittee heard arguments Wednesday for and against the controversial practice.

The U.S. Department of Labor program allows employers to adjust wages based on how a person’s disability affects their work productivity. Critics say that's discriminatory and exploitative, while proponents say it’s a good option for folks who might not otherwise get hired. 

Wendy Corry, the consultant who headed the study, told lawmakers Wednesday that all the task force members agree on one big idea: “Everybody, regardless of their severity of disability, has the ability to work, given the right supports, the right creativity, the team. Everybody has the ability to work."

Six states -- Vermont, Maine, Washington, Maryland, Alaska and New Hampshire -- have banned sub-minimum wage practices. Corry said there’s not good research out there about what happens to people after those programs go away.

During public comment, Molly Madden said her daughter has intellectual disabilities and has been happily employed for less than minimum wage for more than a decade, with the help of a job coach.

She worries that opportunities for someone like her daughter could vanish if the state outlaws the program. "We just need to make sure there’s something in place to take care of individuals who are currently served by it," said Madden, "because we don’t want to have a whole bunch of unintended consequences."

The task force has not finished its work because one of its members, the nonprofit agency Adelante, was sued over subminimum wage practices this spring. That lawsuit is ongoing. 

A total of 281 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities currently work for less than federal minimum wage in New Mexico.

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Support for KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the McCune Charitable Foundation, and from KUNM listeners like you.

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