Facing heavy criticism form disability rights advocates, Sen. Bob Ballinger agreed today to drop an amendment from his bill that would have excluded the developmentally disabled from the state minimum wage.
“His intent in introducing the amendment was to help individuals with developmental disabilities,” said Tom Masseau, executive director of Disability Rights Arkansas. “While we disagree on how to achieve that goal, he has agreed to pull the amendment.”
The bill in question would still roll back the state minimum wage passed overwhelmingly by voters last November, including exempting all businesses and nonprofits with fewer than 25 employees. On Tuesday, Ballinger added a series of amendments, including exclusions for developmentally disabled people and convicted felons. These people, along with those under 18 years old, would be subject to the lower federal minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) rather than the new state minimum wage (currently $9.25, it will be $11 an hour starting in 2021).
Ballinger argues that these individuals will benefit by being excluded from the minimum wage because employers might not be willing to give them a job at the higher wage.
Earlier today, prior to pulling the amendment, he explained his thinking to me regarding including an exemption for the developmentally disabled:
“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 dust mop,” he recounted. “Super happy, sweet guy, made everybody else happy, but all he did was come in and push a dust mop. At $11 an hour, it’s going to be hard for someone to do that.”
He used the example of a local grocery story: “In rural Berryville, where there’s not really a local program [for the developmentally disabled], maybe there’s a local grocery store where the owner knows Sally’s nephew, who’s a good guy and could use the opportunity to go to work, and the owner is willing to hire Sally’s nephew just to help.”
“It’s better for them to be able to go to work and it’s just hard for the employer to take the bite at $11 an hour to do it,” he argued.
Masseau takes a different view. “We’re concerned about creating a two-tiered system,” he said. “We need to utilize resources here in the state to ensure employees have the skill set to earn a livable wage. We don’t want to take a step backwards.”
When Ballinger initially filed the amendment, Masseau called it “a bad amendment that will have a huge impact on Arkansans with disabilities” and “set Arkansas back one step further in the efforts to increase supportive, competitive employment.” He expressed concern about a system under which 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. “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 told me earlier this week. “I would like to that think [Ballinger] would have better compassion and understanding of the individual’s capacities.” Masseau also said that it was wrong for “individuals with developmental disabilities to be categorized with convicted felons as an excluded class,” calling the amendment “a slap to the face to those with disabilities…that they don’t have the capacity to earn more.”
Earlier today, Ballinger told me that although he believed it was the right thing to do, his amendment likely wouldn’t be politically possible if disability advocates opposed it: “In the end, if the disability rights folks don’t see this as a benefit, they see it as a hurt — even though I disagree with them — if they don’t see that now, it may be that a lot of their people will have to get hurt before [that provision in the bill] will ever be able to be passed. It may be that you have to pull that out because there’s no way that I’ll be able to convince them that this is actually good for them if their organization is fighting against it.” A few hours later, he did just that, agreeing to withdraw the amendment. He said that he was “thoroughly convinced that in a couple years they’ll come back and ask us [for help] so they can still find places for their people to go to work…until that pain is felt — politically speaking, it probably won’t get done.”
Masseau sees a different path forward: “The expectation should be that all employees should be receiving the minimum wage. The state and the public—we need to do a better job ensuring that individuals with disabilities have the skills and the tools to remain competitive and get that job.”
Disability Rights Arkansas also opposes a similar bill to roll back the minimum wage, filed yesterday by Rep. Robin Lundstrum, which includes an exemption for employees of certain developmental disabilities service providers. The DD provision in Lundstrum’s bill appears to be an attempt to exclude the state’s controversial sheltered workshops, segregated work facilities for disabled people that pay significantly less than the federal minimum wage. These facilities are already allowed to pay sub-minimum wage to disabled employers under federal and state law, so their continued operation was not impacted by the recent state wage hikes, nor would it be impacted by the Ballinger or Lundstrum bills. However, DRA opposes Lundstrum’s bill because it would allow sheltered workshops, as well as other developmental disability service providers, to exempt other low-wage employees who are not clients in their vocational rehabilitation programs from the minimum wage. This would impact disabled people, who are often hired for conventionally paying jobs by the workshops, as well as non-disabled employees. Direct care workers, for example, would be subject to the $7.25 federal minimum wage. The result, Masseau said, could be lower-paid employees simply because they provide services to the developmentally disabled.