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Subminimum Wage Plan Divides Disability Advocates


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Disability advocates are split over a proposal in the U.S. Senate that would establish limits on people with disabilities working for less than minimum wage.

The Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is expected to take up a reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act on Wednesday. Within the proposed legislation is a plan to establish first-ever requirements that must be met before individuals with disabilities could be allowed to work for less than the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour.

Currently, many with disabilities leave high school and are referred directly to sheltered workshop environments. That would change under what’s known as section 511 of the bill. Those with disabilities could only be placed in subminimum-wage jobs if they meet certain age-related requirements and while receiving job training services to prepare them for competitive employment. What’s more, individuals age 24 or younger would be required to pursue vocational rehabilitation services first.

“I believe it is critically important that every young person with a disability have an opportunity to experience competitive, integrated employment as they transition from school to adult life,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, one of the bill’s chief sponsors, in a statement to Disability Scoop.

“Without section 511 in the bill, I am very concerned that another generation of young people with significant disabilities will end up getting tracked directly from school to sheltered settings,” said Harkin who chairs the committee where the bill is slated to be considered.

Advocates with the National Down Syndrome Society and the National Federation of the Blind, however, say the bill does little more than provide a checklist for vocational rehabilitation agencies that could ultimately put more individuals at risk for low-wage employment.

“This provision purports to introduce protections to limit the number of youth with disabilities who are placed in subminimum-wage employment, but will have the unintended effect of trapping people with disabilities in dead-end, segregated, subminimum-wage jobs with the blessing of the rehabilitation system,” said Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, which is calling for the provision to be dropped from the bill.

The current debate comes two years after a similar effort to update the Workforce Investment Act fell apart. This time around, however, Senate aides say they have strong bipartisan support and indicated there’s a chance that a bill could be on the president’s desk before the end of the year.

Groups supporting the proposal include The Arc, Easter Seals, the National Council on Independent Living, the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities and the National Disability Rights Network.

“What this does is create a requirement that vocational rehabilitation providers make an effort to achieve an employment outcome rather than just shrug their shoulders and place people in sheltered workshops,” said Patrick Wojahn, a public policy analyst at the National Disability Rights Network. “It’s a step in the right direction.”

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Comments (36 Responses)

  1. Neal Folsom says:

    I truly believe that the minimum wages should increase for people with development disabilities.

  2. Aldyth says:

    That’ll be just dynamite in Illinois, where funding for Supported Employment has been cut so deep that most agencies have discontinued offering it as a service option. That’ll leave a lot of folks sitting at home in front of a television set, which is happening already because of the state having tens of thousands on waiting lists for service.

  3. Barb says:

    Well, currently in New York State, there is no more admissions to sheltered workshops allowed as of July 1st. There is also a plan in place that will close the sheltered workshops in existence within the next few years.

  4. Greg says:

    We cannot create equality for people with disabilities simply by putting more money into their pockets. One of the realities of a free, capitalist society is that workers are generally paid for their contributions toward a finished product. If we are to retain the dignity and respect that people with disabilities have earned over the past twenty to thirty years, they must continue to compete in the workforce just like everyone else. To lay unearned entitlements upon them demeans them as human beings and will undo much of the work done toward normalization.

  5. Kathy says:

    The end result would take the disabled community backward. Currently at least the most severely disabled are out of their homes, with other people, and placed in an opportunity to see and be seen. An enriched experience leads to growth. The other issue is productivity. Do people really think that everyone should be paid the same amount regardless of the value produced? There are usually more paid supervisory staff needed and the output (profit) is usually less. Money does not magically appear.

  6. Justme says:

    Greg, your belief, that laying unearned entitlements upon them demeans them as human beings and will undo much of the work done toward normalization, is completely backward. Here is why. EVERYONE else is entitled to minimum wage but our people. Your assumption that people with disabilities can’t produce is false based on the experiences of Walgreen’s project and my own years placing seriously disabled people in community based jobs. Stop putting people with disabilities down. We can and do produce with workplace accommodations and assistive technology. If I need someone to limit me I will call you. Until then each of us deserves the civil rights protections we have under the Rehabilitation Act which are never enforced without a fight. Now, if WIIA is authorized, children won’t be funneled into the school to workshop pipeline that purports to be some sort of training. No it is not training since the work done in sweatshops, I mean workshops, is rarely if ever a job one can duplicate in the community. That explains why my state’s vocational rehabilitation agency will not pay for workshop placements. No training means no actual paid servvice was delivered. Let’sget this straight. I understand people with intense needs may be better served in a day program that is eriching for the participants and provides a safe place for people to enjoy the community. That is different than the sheltered workshop scam that makes big money for Goowill and thier ilk. Here’s how it works. The goverment entity pays for the sheltered workshop – revenue source 1. The individuals in the community donate free items for resale – revenue source 2. The company that gives the product to the sheltered workshop in order to complete the work also pays for that work to be done – revenue source 3. The workshops pay subminimum wage to workers – revenue source 4. The workshops do not have to pay taxes – revenue source 5. We, the taxpayers prop up this whole mess because people with disabilities who want to work in the community can’t when they are stuck in workshops so we the people support them via SSI. Day programs are not work programs and work shoud be paid.

  7. Annee says:

    Once again, the government is interfering with good intentions, but with no real understanding of the law of unintended consequences. If the disabled person is capable of training leading to competitive employment, then they would not need this bill. If I am hiring a disabled person, and that person requires a personal supervisor, and/or special equipment, and/or is not likely to be able to produce as a non-disabled person, and then I am told I have to pay them more, well, I am just not interested in hiring that person. Businesses are not charities. They must pay taxes, more now than ever. And, sorry, but they are entitled to profit from their endeavor.

    I used to live in Flint. The AC Plant wanted to hire disabled persons for $5/hour (30 years ago) to sweep floors in the shop. It was thought to be a win/win idea. Good for the bottom line, good for the disabled community. The unions threw a hissy fit. Oh NO. Those were UNION jobs. ($15/hr.) AC backed off of course. (They ultimately went bankrupt. )

  8. Mike says:

    Many that support the elimination of Section 14 c and the payment of commensurate wages have little idea the doors that this provision have opened for people with significant intellectual disabilities (ID). Or they do not care. The opportunity to work is important to thousands of Americans that,primarily because of their intellectual disability, can not compete for a job at a competitive wage. For some it is more an opportunity to be productive and have a day that is meaningful and structured-just as work in part provides for all- more so than earning a living. Sometimes I think when some mock the wages earned by people with significant ID they are in a backdoor way mocking the ability of a person with a significant disability to make a contribution in the world of employment.

  9. Rosella A. Alm says:

    Wait staff in restaurants have worked for subminimum wages for as long as I remember. They depend on their income from tips, and must share that income with the bus staff, (people who clean the tables). In recent years many of the positions in the bus staff have been filled by people with disabilities (also on subminimum wages) but sharing in the tip revenue, if the wait staff is honest.

  10. TFred says:

    This a great idea. Every advocate that supports eliminating 14c and workshops can simply start a company and hire 20 people from the local CRP at local minimum wages. Those 20 should not be just the people with the highest production rates but be equally spread across all the ability levels. In our production operation, what we package is sold in big box retail/grocery stores throughout North America. It is very likely readers of this list buy some of these products regularly. Our customers come to us because we have good quality and on time delivery. Our competition is private, for-profit organizations who pay minimum wage. Many of the people we serve had communty jobs of all kinds until they were fired for being too slow. We have other people working all over our community and we strongly encourage that. If I had to pay minimum wage to everyone in our CRP production areas, I would not hire 90% of the people I work with everyday. By having a subminimum wage option they are working at the same types of jobs done by our competitors.

  11. Nancy says:

    The population we serve needs MORE options, not less. I think the skills-based sub-minimum wage has its purpose in this industry, and I think that sheltered workshops have value as well. The problem is trying to pigeonhole all of the clients into one type of program. They are all individuals and should have a choice in the type of employment they want to pursue. I am more than annoyed at NBC for making everyone think that ppl with disabilities are all making two cents an hour. That’s simply not true. It’s safe to say that at some level, we *all* work for a skills-based wage. If the government wants people working out in the community, they really need to do a better job of funding supported employment programs.

  12. Judith Greenbaum says:

    My daughter functions in the range of moderate-severe intellectual disability. She loves to work and is very proud of working – in a sheltered situation. She works 20 hours per week. There is no way on earth she could function in a competitive employment situation. If sheltered work options are eliminated by the bill, people like my daughter would be unemployed and this would be a tragedy for her.

  13. Cheryl Felak says:

    “What this does is create a requirement that vocational rehabilitation providers make an effort to achieve an employment outcome rather than just shrug their shoulders and place people in sheltered workshops,” – I don’t see this as an “Either/Or” issue – it is a continuum.

    As a parent of a 19 year old in transition I know that he is not capable of earning a competitive wage but that does not mean that he cannot do some work. In order for him to work in any type of “typical” job he would have to have 1:1 constant supervision with continual coaching which would then turn into behavior issues – I do not know any employer that would want to pay competitive wages for him to not be very productive and the 1:1 “coach” too. Where does the payment for the coaches come into this plan?
    He currently goes to school and when school is out he attends a “sheltered workshop” He gets paid for work he does – since he’s not interested in doing work nor motivated by money or rewards, he does not have much interest in the work past the first minute but he loves going to ATP (Adult Training Program). He loves going because it gives him something meaningful (for him) to do – he loves listening to the music on the radio, changing the station, talking to the staff, talking to the people who bring snacks, and monitoring everyone’s business.
    He is interested in people and in interacting with people and he has the opportunity to do that in his work – yet he gets paid hardly anything – and he shouldn’t because he doesn’t do anything that one would consider “productive” there.
    We need to have a continuum of services and not force people into tracks that are not appropriate for them. We need to provide meaningful opportunities for work, learning and leisure for our citizens with ID/DD. Just as they all have different abilities and interests, we need to provide variety of meaningful opportunities to match those abilities and interests. Making rules that ALL must be required to pursue vocational rehabilitation services first does not take the variety of abilities and interests into account.
    Where does Person-Centered Care fit into requiring all those 24 and under to pursue vocational rehabilitation services first prior to trying other opportunities?

  14. Jean Daniello says:

    I have young adult twins with I/DD. I think the schools should not be able to take children out of school to participate in “work study” while in HS at least before they are 18, but should receive opportunity to learn as much as possible in school. Then, they will have more skills to bring to a job and more normal HS experience. I have objection to sub-minimum wage under certain conditions. I don’t know if there are ever conditions where it is OK. I would rather a day program take on small work projects and provide each worker a stipend for their efforts, than have someone tied to a sub-minimum wage job, especially if the company is making large profits. There are no easy answers, but no other group, no matter how unproductive, gets paid below minimum wage. Just think of Congress or Wall Street traders.

  15. Blane Beckwith says:

    This is totally preposterous. There is no way that a “special” minimum wage should be established, just for disabled people. We deserve the same pay as anyone else.

    All Section 511 does is create a subclass of disabled people that will be targeted for potential employers as a group of people who they can get away with paying less money to for their labors.

  16. Aldyth says:

    To apply a one size fits all solution will simply result in tens of thousands of people with the most severe disabilities never working again, even at the minimal level they may be capable of.

  17. pat says:

    The comments are very thought provoking and the debate over what to do in the daytime will bring much needed changes to the field. Families and advocates have to continue pushing for choice, good meaningful education, and constructive use of time. The current system treats too many as if they are prisoners on the workfloor and needs to be changed. Businesses will just not hire and pay minimum wage to most of our clients.

  18. Tammy Gilronan says:

    I have a 24yr. old son who currently attends a sheltered workshop. He is mentally and physically disabled, but with a whole lot of love!!! He transitioned from the school to the workshop with absolutely no problems. He would NEVER be able to get a job in the “regular” workforce and earn a living. By working in the workshop, he works for a few hours a day with help and enjoys every minute of it. He could care less about the money he makes. These are NOT sweatshops like “Justme” stated. It seems to me that the only people who think the sheltered workshops are bad are the people who do not have their children attending them. My feeling is that if you have a son or daughter who is high functioning and is capable of going out and getting a “real” job, then send them. But for those of us who have children who can not work in the public workforce, leave us and the workshops alone. Who are you to judge what these people do? I have been to my son’s workshop and have seen the work they do. They are very happy and they love to see their friends. There is no criticism, no staring because they are different, no judgemental managers complaining about them. The staff is extremely supportive, helpful, and caring. The government needs to stay out of this. This makes me very angry. Unless you deal with children and adults with developmental disabilities, please don’t think that you know what is best for them. Believe me, you don’t!!!! They can’t seem to run the country, what makes you think that they can handle people with disablilities!!!

  19. cara says:

    Sorry I’m with Greg. To me what this will do is kill the learning curve. You will either come out of high school with the ability to get a job or you will get lost in day hab hell. Day hab is totally appropriate for some people but most don’t leave. What about those people who are in between. They could work competitavely but are just missing a few skills or need some experience? I have worked in a sheltered workshop the people who worked there did not consider it a sweat shop. They took brakes when they wanted (as often as they wanted) and earned a little money. Exceptional workers who put forth a lot of effort were encouraged to leave the program and seek other employment. That is the way it should be.

  20. Matt says:

    People need to remember that not every person with a disability – particularly those with developmental disabilities – is high functioning enough to hold down a competitive community job even with accommodations. We tend to look at the Sheltered Workshop program through a lens of our own competency. If I can do it, everyone can do it. But that’s just not the case.

    There are plenty of adults with moderate and extreme developmental delays who couldn’t keep a competitive job if they are judged by their productivity and output. For these individuals, Sheltered Workshops give them a chance to learn new skills, interact with friends of all abilities, and have stability and consistency in their lives. And even if you can only produce one widget a day, you will not lose your job or be criticized by your employer.

    For many of these clients, Sheltered Workshops are the only option for workplace like environment. They don’t have the ability to hold a Supported Employment job. And the organizations who run many of the Sheltered Workshops (Goodwill is not a good example as they are not your average nonprofit in terms of size and revenue) couldn’t afford to pay minimum wage or higher and continue to operate. The margins on this kind of work (fulfillment, assembly, packaging) is very small. In order to give these clients the ability to work at their own pace regardless of productivity and provide coaches, mentors and support activities), you need these minimum wage waivers. The numbers don’t add up any other way.

    It’s about choice. It’s about giving people another option. If you are able to hold down a competitive community job that’s great. But if you can’t, you should have other options.

  21. Sherri says:

    Volunteer employment is a much better option than sheltered workshops. Our agency works with individuals with very sever developmental disabilities. In a volunteer setting, these individuals are in an integrated setting, with the support of a job coach and the opportunity to develop real vocational skills in a non-sheltered environment without the requirement to meet the production expectations of paid employment.

  22. Tendai says:

    It seems pretty exploitative to have someone work for you, enrich your business and you pay them nothing or $.22 an hour like the lady who is blind and worked for Goodwill. If you look in the dictionary it is the actual definition of the word exploitative! She had to quit because it was costing her more to pay for transportation to and from her job than she actually earned. She was quite concerned how she was going to make it. Adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities cannot afford to live on their social security alone so how will paying someone nothing or a quarter per hour help them to be productive and self sufficient? It makes me quite worried and disgusted to think that my son might enter a transitional program that works for someone and they don’t pay him. My great-great grandparents were slaves (I even knew my great grandmother so it wasn’t that long ago) and now my son maybe a slave too in the next decade? Oh, no, no, no. Not again and not for my son. I want better for him and everyone else too. I see how many kids with special needs are abused at schools, churches, at therapies, in the playgrounds, on the streets and it certainly doesn’t change as special needs kids grow into special needs adults. So no pay, one can’t leave if they want too and possible mistreatment? Hmm sounds like slavery me to me. How about this. If society doesn’t want to provide a living wage for adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities then society should fully financially support them. Then they can go to the day workshops if they want, when they want for fun and for socialization (but that is still a crappy idea because somebody is getting work done for free). How about we make room for everyone in society instead of hiding away those we don’t want to see or who make us uncomfortable.

  23. Whitney says:

    If disabled worker more productive than non-disabled worker in this scenario happens as well. There is a such a thing call work place bullying. The non-disabled worker will feel threaten and resentful being out performed by a disabled worker because that person is earning less and makes the boss should pay the same rate. If the person out performs another worker and is paid less that person feels the income is threaten. To say is that person is disabled cannot perform is erroneous and there might threat of violence not to out perform the non-disabled worker. Non-disabled workers often believe that the disabled workers will take money away from them. To me these reasons are about the same for child labor, slavery, sweatshops, and indentured servitude where perception is that people 1/3 as valued to the workforce. If you want equality in the world for one set of people then it is no longer equality.

  24. Charlie Graham says:

    To the nay sayers, I say “make a positive recommendation.” Criticisms may be well thought out and may be right on the mark, but hey, take those thoughts further and do the hard part of coming up with ways to actually improve the system. Senator Harkin and his colleagues are trying to bring about a positive change for a system that most here agree is in dire need of improvement. We as a group have very few advocates who are in a position to make a difference in the lives of our fellow disabled Americans, so let’s get behind and support those who are trying ‘something positive.’ Taking my own advice, I would like to see the Honorable Senator and the Committee also apply whatever Congressional pressure or influence to get the US Dept of Labor, Office of Federal Contracts Compliance Programs (OFCCP) to finally publish their “proposed” rule requiring covered federal contractors to employ at least 7% of their workforce as people who have a disability. We all probably know what the federal contract prevailing wages are like, and getting this rule into the marketplace would re-direct thousands of family wage jobs to people who have disabilities, sheltered, or otherwise. But alas, the proposed rule has languished at Labor for over three years now. So, again, to the nay sayers, I say “Stop sniping and come up with some positive recommendations.” Advocates must advocate FOR something. Critics are just critics.

  25. Claire says:

    The argument that eliminating sub-minimum wage will limit options for people with disabilities is flawed, at best, and is actually, I believe, an intentional torture of logic. An emotional appeal to our sense that choice is a primal right, any limit of which is a grave transgression.
    The reality is, there will continue to be options for people with disabilities, but they will be labelled more honestly. People will no longer be required to persist in employment that does not match their skills simply because of the lack of imagination on the part of their “providers.” There will be options for people with significant disabilities, but they should aim to explore strengths with a view to integrated employment, rather than insisting on a dismal adherence to a Procrustean definition of productivity.
    As a supported employment professional, I am well aware of the rich and varied spectrum of abilities within our community, and the extent to which persons with disabilities are un- and underemployed, it is a reflection of our failure as an industry to match abilities to business needs, not an indication of a lack “work readiness.”

  26. Peter says:

    I am a director at a Sheltered Workshop and will gladly close my doors when Supported Employment programs can employ all of my people in minimum wage jobs. But, this will NEVER happen. Taking choices away from people with developmental disabilties is a disservice to them.

  27. Whitney says:

    It is same old argument when women wanted equal pay for same amount of working hours which created Lilly Ledbecker Act. It is same argument that when person of color wanted equal pay as a Caucasian. I heard the argument that woman does not have to pay the same bills as a man. The White man needs more money than African American man. If we raise the minimum wage we will go out of business and limits the choice. Nobody thinks cutting pay for the CEO or upper management who are $200,000 and more but scream bloody murder when lowest wage earner is asking for more. United States have long history of wage discrimination against different sets of people first it was Indentured Servants (who make the same intellectual disabilities), Slavery, Child Labor, and Sub Minimum wage earners. Why do you think that all the manufacturing jobs are over seas and middle class is shrinking in part it is Companies are looking for the cheapest labor force there is to place obscene mark ups on poorly made products. It not the companies are hurting it is everyone.

    As for intellectual disabilities they know when they are being treated different and even a toddler knows that. Just because you think you doing the right thing by giving them job the person with intellectual disabilities know when a non-disabled person is making more than they do. Don’t be fooling your self thinking that they won’t know but they may not understand but they do sense inherent unfairness.

    Paying people based upon disability is discrimination but go ahead justify yourself by doing good deeds as some did in pass when labor abuse occurs.

  28. Allison says:

    We appreciate Sen. Harkin’s efforts on behalf of Americans with Disabilities. Meeting people’s needs can only be done by understanding those needs. Our legislator’s need to take a deeper dive into the lives of American’s with Disabilities; they have a superficial & dashboard picture of the daily lives, struggles and needs of Americans with Disabilities, and their circles of support.
    Early regulatory efforts focused on raising the standard of care & holding providers accountable. Later reform, I believe, handicaps provider’s efforts to be creative.

  29. Chuck says:

    Exactly Greg! First of all, giving anyone anything that they do not earn, or do not deserve, simply because someone feels they are “entitled” to it is demeaning. Second, forcing employers to pay more than any position is worth does nothing but kill off jobs. It’s already hard getting employers to pay the current minimum wage … want to kill off a huge number of jobs for people with disabilities, force employers to pay more.

  30. Chuck says:

    Thank you Cheryl Felak for your common sense, real world posting.

  31. Chuck says:

    Whitney, it’s not about paying people less because they have a disability, it’s about paying for their abilities. And these often are not to the level of those competing for jobs in the work force. This is not a cruel thing to say, it’s just the truth. If they are as capable of doing the same job as anyone else hired for a position at a certain wage, yes, then they should be paid the same. But if they are not, then they should not be.

  32. Whitney says:

    That is slippery slope Cliff. I am not going argue that intellectual disabilities should be pay on amount of work they produce but I am saying it should not be less 45% of non-disabled. If Sheltar Work place choose to disclose the actual payment I mean net payment . The payroll taxes are still being taken out of the check, I am saying 3 dollars that person makes is that the check pays them 1 due to payroll taxes. I am also saying that the payroll taxes should have exemption on intellectual disabilties. So check the Net versus the Gross pay for intellectual disabilites and compare to rest of sub-minimum wages. What is needed is minimum wages for the intellectual disabilities.

    It still needs federal guidelines and awareness not all disabilities mean mental retardation.

  33. Jenn says:

    So here are the facts that I myself know them to be. Let me start by saying I am a professional in the business of placing those with disabilities in community based employment that means NO sheltered workshops. My company however does have a sheltered workshop option because in human services we are all about CHOICES and OPTIONS because each person with a disability is different and has very unique different needs depending on their disability and the person themselves.

    With that said; community based employment is NOT for everyone. Unless the person is capable of performing the essential job tasks without the assistance of a job coach after a set amount of time the person CANNOT and should not be in community based employment. When you have a person with a disability hired by a company outside of a sheltered workshop and have assistance for them for an unspecified amount of time (basically forever) so they can “learn” their job it is not in the beneficial nature for the person or the employer.

    In my specific state of Pennsylvania we allow EVERY person who would like to try community based employment to do so. If they cannot or are not ready for such employment they can always try again at a later time being sent to a sheltered workshop is not the end of the world! At my specific company being sent to our sheltered workshop is a stepping stone to come to community employment and earn a regular job when they have worked on the tasks they need to. That is of course if the individual wants to.

    Now we also must NOT forget people with disabilities receive aide from the state/government (SSDI/SSI/food stamps/subsidized housing) to assist them with their wages. These things can and are taken away when they begin earning more.

    Now who are we to take away their CHOICE of going to a sheltered workshop? For as long as I can remember we have always been about choices – Now we are making their choices for them.

  34. tim bennett says:

    sheltered workshops lead to dead end jobs and they don’t want no one to leave their sweatshops it’s not really job training it’s nothing but a joke the wages lead to a cycle of poverty it’s wrong the ceos should live on subminimum not 6 figures 1 figure income they don’t deserve their fancy cars and homes they are greedy north carolina is one of the states that alows goodwill industries and other sheltered workshops to pay these lousy wagesl

  35. Steven James III says:

    ARC supports this? I have an individual in NYS that has earned $3 paycheck for working a four hour shift at ARC Works in Monroe County!! How this teaches the value of hard work I do not know. And how they can say they support this effort but practice the activity they say they are against is beyond me. People with developmental disabilities have the right to a fair paycheck just like the rest of us and companies that make their products with this kind of subcontracting should be ashmed. The hypocracy of ARC is appalling.

  36. Teresa Truby says:

    I must say that in our area (New Castle County Delaware) the situation is exactly the opposite — great pains are taken to place our special population in meaningful employment situations. My sister who has Down Syndome is not comfortable, nor capable enough, to work in the general public. Concern must be given to the individuals who need safety and security in their workplaces, even while earning minimal wages.

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