Disabled persons, lawmakers look to phase out blocks to living wage

By Jerry Nowicki Capitol News Illinois

Disability self-advocate Megan Norlin (left) reads from a statement by fellow self-advocate Mary Hettel (right) at a press event Tuesday in the Capitol aimed at promoting legislation to phase out a program which allows certain employers to pay disabled workers far less than the statutory minimum wage. (Photo by Jerry Nowicki/Capitol News Illinois)

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois lawmakers are looking to phase out a system which allows certain employers to pay disabled persons far less than the statutory minimum wage that applies to all other state workers.

Provisions in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act section 14C allow employers to obtain a certificate to hire individuals at less than minimum wage, and advocates say a review of state records shows some certificate holders have paid wages far lower than $1 hourly.

Despite the fact that the 14C exemption is part of a federal program, state Rep. Theresa Mah, a Chicago Democrat and the bill’s lead sponsor, said six states have implemented programs to mandate a living wage at a statewide level, and Illinois’ effort would mirror those of other states.

“There’s a real sincere drive here to just get right with history,” said Ryan Croke, executive director of the Illinois Network of Centers for Independent Living.

House Bill 3340, called the Illinois Dignity in Pay Act, would call for the state’s Department of Human Services to develop and implement a plan over the next five years to phase out subminimum wage procedures at 14C-licensed sheltered workshops.

“So we can grow as a state and make sure that we are really being a cutting-edge employer for people with disabilities, it’s time now to be able to phase out to say that people with disabilities are worth competitive wages,” said Rahnee Patrick, director of independent living at Access Living, an advocacy group for disabled persons.

Disability self-advocate Megan Norlin read a statement from fellow self-advocate Mary Hettel at a press event for the bill Tuesday.

“I graduated college with a BSW, and the Department of Human Services paid for my education. I understood that they would help me find employment. This has not happened,” Norlin read.

To ensure employment access to disabled persons, the bill would also create a 14C worker protection fund, establish customized work plans for each worker currently in a 14C position, freeze the issuance of 14C certificates, and require reporting and evaluation on the progress of reforms.

Mah said part of the protection fund would go to state subsidies to facilities paying increased wages in certain cases, although the exact percentage of the wage match was not yet defined in the legislation.

She added that the funding for the act would ideally come from already-allocated but unused funding to the DHS Department of Developmental Disabilities. Since 2010, an average of $120 million in funding for the Division has gone unspent each year, Croke said.

The bill would call for 1 percent of the Division’s $1.7 billion budget in fiscal year 2020 for a total of $17 million, with one percent added each year until FY 2023, when the funding tops out at $68 million for future budget years.

There were 112 facilities in the state with 14C licenses as of July 2018, and they employ more than 10,000 disabled persons, Croke said. He added the goal of the legislation is not to demonize or shut down any 14C-licensed facility, and the length of the phase-out plus other state support would allow the facilities to continue their mission.

At the time Maryland passed similar legislation, the state had 41 providers licensed through section 14C in the state, all of which have been able to adapt and continue to provide for disabled persons, Croke said.

Mah said there would be subject matter hearings on the bill in the coming weeks to allow more disability self-advocates to share their stories.

Norlin shared hers at the Capitol press event Tuesday.

“This is what this bill is about, giving people a choice to find or even build a job that they want, or keep working in a workshop, if they wish, but be rewarded accordingly with a living wage, which they can then choose to spend any way they wish, as you all do,” she said.


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