As we noted earlier today, Rep. Bob Ballinger yesterday amended his bill to substantially roll back the state minimum wage approved by voters last November. Ballinger’s inclusion of a new exemption excluding developmentally disabled employees would be “a total step backwards for the state,” said Tom Masseau, executive director for Disability Rights Arkansas.

“If you have an individual with a developmental disability working, say at Kroger, and they’re currently making minimum wage — that person could be penalized for having a developmental disability and would not get the minimum wage that their co-workers would be getting,” Masseau said. “This would carve out a two-class system. I would like to that think he would have better compassion and understanding of the individual’s capacities.”

Ballinger argued that businesses would be reluctant to hire employees with developmental disabilities if they had to pay a state minimum wage of $11 an hour. “I remember back when I was a manager in a grocery store, at one point I was a stocker, and I remember working with a guy who came through and pushed a dustmop,” Ballinger said. “Super happy, sweet guy, made everybody else happy, but all he did was come in and push a dustmop. At $11 an hour, it’s going to be hard for someone to do that.”

Ballinger’s amendment would not impact around 3,000 disabled employees in the state who already make even less than the federal minimum wage. Under federal law, employers can apply for a “Section 14(c)” certificate allowing sub-minimum wages for disabled workers from the Department of Labor, a process that has been ripe for abuse and exploitation. The overwhelming majority of such certificates are now held by nonprofits known as community rehabilitation programs (CRPs), which are intended to provide vocational rehabilitation services services to people with disabilities. DRA put out an excellent report last year on conditions in the state’s CRP-operated “sheltered workshops,” segregated work facilities for disabled people that pay sub-minimum wage (sometimes pennies an hour). The report criticized the state’s poor progress and inadequate support in helping disabled workers transition to “integrated employment” that pays a living wage.

DRA has long advocated for Arkansans with disabilities to have access to competitive, integrated employment in the community, an explicit goal of the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, passed in 2014. In the U.S., Arkansas currently ranks above only West Virginia, Mississippi and Alabama in employing people with disabilities. “We can do better than that,” said Masseau. “The effort to continue justifying the payment of sub-minimum wage to individuals with disabilities is movement in the wrong direction.”

Ballinger’s bill would not impact the state’s dozens of sheltered workshops (the continued existence of the workshops is highly controversial, but the facilities do have proponents who argue they are valuable resources; for more on the complicated story of the workshops, see the DRA report). State law already allows the workshops to receive similar state certificates allowing sub-minimum wages; holders of 14(c) certificates have approval from the state Department of Labor to pay wages below the state minimum. The recent state wage hikes therefore had no bearing on the workshops paying sub-minimum wages — they simply continued getting the same exemption paperwork from federal and state agencies. Ballinger’s bill wouldn’t impact their operation one way or the other, Masseau said.

However, if Ballinger’s bill passed as amended, conventional employers without such certificates could create yet another two-tiered system, paying developmentally disabled employees at the lower federal minimum wage ($7.25), while other employees in the same jobs made the state minimum wage ($11 by 2021). People with developmental disabilities who chose to work in the community would face a different set of rules and lower pay because of their disability.

“The proposed amendment will set Arkansas back one step further in the efforts to increase supportive, competitive employment,” Masseau said. “This is a bad amendment and will have a huge impact on Arkansans with disabilities.”

Ballinger’s bill seeks to roll back various elements of the minimum wage hike, approved just last November by 68.5 percent of Arkansas voters (it would also impact the 2014  state minimum wage hike to $8.50, backed by 66 percent of voters). The bill would exempt employees under 18 years old and employers with less than 25 employees. Among other changes, his amendments yesterday added exemptions for employees who are developmentally disabled and those who have been convicted of a felony.

Masseau said that it was wrong for “individuals with developmental disabilities to be categorized with convicted felons as an excluded class.” 

“This is a slap to the face to those with disabilities,” Masseau said, “that they don’t have the capacity to earn more.”