TIFFIN, Ohio – A judge has ordered Seneca Re-ad Industries Inc. to pay more than $54,000 in damages and back pay after ruling that the sheltered workshop wrongly set subminimum wages for three of its employees with disabilities.

Judge Steven D. Bell, an administrative law judge for the U.S. Department of Labor, ruled this week that the employer was not justified when it paid three of its employees below minimum wage. He also ruled that the subminimum wages were not accurately assessed.

The case involves three employees of the Seneca Re-Ad Center, a sheltered workshop in Fostoria. In a petition filed in November with the Department of Labor, the employees said their disabilities, which include visual impairment and Asperger’s syndrome, did not interfere with their work productivity and they should be paid minimum wage.

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They are Ralph Magers, 50, who goes by Joe, Pamela Steward, 53, and Mark Felton, 23. All have worked at the shop for at least three years and said they made around $3 per hour for most of their employment.

Employers in the United States are allowed to pay subminimum wages if they have a certificate from the Wage and Hour Division at the Department of Labor.

Special wages are allowed under the Fair Labor Standards Act for those with disabilities, given that “the disability actually impairs the worker’s earning or productive capacity for the work being performed. The fact that a worker may have a disability is not in and of itself sufficient to warrant the payment of a subminimum wage.”

When a special minimum wage is considered, employers are supposed to compare a worker’s productivity to that of someone without a disability doing the same work to assign a scaled down wage.

Bell heard the case in early January at Seneca County Common Pleas Court in Tiffin. During the hearing process, the judge toured the work site to better understand the work being performed.

In his ruling, the judge wrote that the employer failed to meet the burden of proof that it had accurately assessed the employees’ performance to justify paying less than minimum wage. He determined that the petitioners were not impaired for the work being performed.

Based on testimony, the judge also ruled that the petitioners’ productivity was not accurately tested to determine a wage. Petitioners testified that their work was timed for roughly minute-long intervals which was then extrapolated to get an hourly rate, rather than timed over the course of an hour as is required by law.

The judge ordered each employee to be paid at least the Ohio minimum wage, which is currently $8.10, going forward. He also awarded back pay and liquidated damages to each. He also said he would award attorney fees and “reasonable litigation costs” to the petitioners if that option is available.

Barbara Corner, lead attorney for the petitioners and employment team leader for Disability Rights Ohio, said Wednesday she was “elated” with the decision.

“We feel that the points that we wanted to make, including what was happening at Seneca (Re-Ad Center), were heard by the judge and validated by the decision,” she said. Corner said the decision could “put a lot of workshops in somewhat of a vulnerable place,” in terms of how they pay employees.

The Re-Ad Center is operated by the Seneca County Board of Developmental Disabilities through a partnership with Roppe Industries, a private flooring company. David Kessler, an attorney for Seneca Re-Ad, said Wednesday afternoon that he hadn’t read the decision and declined to comment until he did and spoke with his client.

Bell ordered the payments, which total $54,075.40, be made within 30 days of the decision. Seneca Re-Ad has 30 days from the day of the decision to appeal to the Department of Labor’s Administrative Review Board.

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