ARTICLE

Will push to pay disabled minimum wage just put them out of work?

East Iowans worry bill could hurt more than help disabled workers

Options of Linn County employee Dan Harwood strings keys on a rod for a client on Friday, Nov. 4, at the Linn County Community Services building in Cedar Rapids. Harwood's parents and Options staff worry that a proposal in Congress to remove the minimum-wage exemption for sheltered workshops like Options could mean an end to the program. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Options of Linn County employee Dan Harwood strings keys on a rod for a client on Friday, Nov. 4, at the Linn County Community Services building in Cedar Rapids. Harwood's parents and Options staff worry that a proposal in Congress to remove the minimum-wage exemption for sheltered workshops like Options could mean an end to the program. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
/

Ever had one of those advertising fliers in the mail, the one with a car key that just might start your next car down at the local dealer?

Dan Harwood spent a good part of Friday afternoon assembling those keys to send off to advertisers, patiently stringing 100 at a time on a metal rod. He also threaded the elastic string through the holes punched in several dozen instructional tags for office chairs.

Harwood, 30, who has Down syndrome, is one of about 200 people with disabilities who work weekdays at Options of Linn County. The county-run program provides sheltered workshop and supported employment in the community, but Harwood’s parents worry his job may be endangered.

“He brings home a tiny paycheck, but he thinks it’s great,” said Harwood’s father, Craig. “For many of the clients out there, it’s their ability to have a social life” that’s most important.

Craig and Kathy Harwood of southeast Cedar Rapids worry a proposal in Congress to require sheltered workshops like Options to pay workers the minimum wage will price their son and his co-workers out of their jobs.

“I wish it were not this way, but no one’s going to pay him a minimum wage,” Craig Harwood said. “It’s a pink slip for virtually every mentally handicapped worker in the U.S.”

Options director Jim Nagel is concerned, too. “When you’re making your bids for contracts, you’re bidding it on what the non-disabled person can do. You wouldn’t be able to pay the consumers the minimum wage” and stay in business, he said.

“It’s a case of an attempt to throw away the baby with the bathwater,” said Dion Williams, executive director of Systems Unlimited, a non-profit that operates a sheltered workshop in Iowa City.

Williams suspects the legislation is a response to the 2009 discovery of 21 mentally handicapped men living in squalor in a city-owned boardinghouse in Atalissa while working at West Liberty Foods. The arrangement through a subcontractor dated to the 1970s, and a lawsuit by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is seeking back wages.

U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., the bill’s sponsor, said the bill will improve employment opportunities for those with disabilities.

“Although new technologies provide the disabled with greater opportunities, they still face many obstacles, including lower wages,” Stearns wrote in an email. “The legislation provides five years to phase out this provision, and I believe that nearly all could find a way to pay their disabled employees a fair wage in that time. However, if warranted, this measure could be amended to provide an exception, if it maintains the best interest of the disabled worker.”

“What this would bill would do is (say), people who can’t work at a competitive level don’t deserve to work at all,” said Williams.

“Without that exemption, sheltered workshops would close,” said Deb Pumphrey of Ottumwa, board president of Tenco Industries, the sheltered workshop where her 27-year-old son, Joshua, works, usually shredding paper.

Pumphrey was a witness at a Sept. 15 hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, chaired by Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin. The hearing on employment opportunities for disabled people didn’t specifically address the congressional legislation, but the sub-minimum wage was an issue, Pumphrey said.

“I was the lone ranger in the discussion,” she said. “My position was that sheltered workshops have a place in our world.”

Not all agree. The National Disability Rights Network issued a report this year critical of sheltered workshops. The report’s cover carries an image of the Atalissa boardinghouse.

“Over 70 years many families and individuals with disabilities themselves have bought into the premise that this is the best they can do,” said Anil Lewis, spokesman for the National Federation for the Blind. “The only story they’re told is the one (that) they’re not able to earn a living.”

The federation supports the proposal to end the sub-minimum wage. Instead, Lewis said employers can tailor easy, basic tasks for workers with disabilities while paying minimum wage.

“Just simply adopting a new business value that values the employee, the employee gets more productive, the expectations for the employee change,” said Lewis.

“It’s a very real and legitimate issue, and we need to continue to have conversations on it, but it’s a very complex issue,” said Jonathan Young, chairman of the National Council on Disability. The council is a federal agency advising the president, Congress and federal agencies on programs and policies affecting people with disabilities.

Young said the nation may decide to shift workers with disabilities to market-wage jobs, but Stearns’ legislation doesn’t provide a way to do it.

“Let’s approach this from the bottom up,” Young said. “Let’s look at the circumstances of people’s lives, what’s happening, what isn’t. That’s a little bit different approach than saying from a very high level, ‘Let’s eradicate the program now.’ ”The alternative now is “day care, basically,” said Craig Harwood. “We’re just winding the clock back 40 or 50 years.”  

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.