SEATTLE — A proposed ban on paying workers with disabilities less than minimum wage could take effect as soon as next month, but some worry the change would have unintended consequences for the people it’s trying to help.

Employers are allowed to pay subminimum wages through the use of special certificates in Seattle and in Washington state and elsewhere across the country. Supporters of the change say this is blatantly discriminatory and out of line with federal laws protecting the rights of workers with disabilities.

Currently, just eight Seattleites make less than minimum wage under the city’s ordinance. But members of the Seattle Commission for People with disAbilities, the group calling for the change, say they’re going after the state certificates next. That could affect 705 more workers — some earning just a few dollars an hour.

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The Northwest Center — which was singled out for paying subminimum wages, in a letter from the commission to the City Council — says the matter isn’t that simple.

Forbidding subminimum wages, the center argues, could cost those workers more in the long run, putting other medical and financial benefits at risk and forcing cuts to their work hours.

Christy Wicklander, a mother and legal guardian to two Seattle workers making subminimum wages, says they are in an ideal situation — gaining experience and self-esteem at work rather than sitting at home.

“Inclusion, in theory, works very nicely,” she said. “But practically, you have to be very careful.”

City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, Mayor Ed Murray and Office of Labor Standards Director Dylan Orr all support the ordinance change.

If the Office of Labor Standards agrees, new city certificates will not be issued past September. The City Council will also vote in September on abolishing the certificates from city use at all.

How it works

As a way to preserve jobs for people less traditionally productive than a typical worker, Washington’s Department of Labor & Industries grants certificates to employers looking to hire workers with disabilities at subminimum wages. (Seattle, which has a higher minimum wage than the state’s, issues its own certificates to employers in the city.)

While many people with disabilities work for minimum wage or higher, special certificates allow for the number of hours worked each week, a prevailing average wage and an employee’s productivity to determine what the employee makes each hour.

Productivity is often measured in a “time/motion study” of how much a worker can accomplish during one hour of work. For example, if an average worker loads 100 boxes in an hour, but the worker being tested loads 15, that worker could be assigned a wage that is 15 percent of the average worker’s, or $2.25 an hour, rather than Seattle’s $15 minimum wage.

Employers conduct their own time/motion studies and include the findings in their certificate applications, along with the worker’s signature that verifies they’re aware of their subminimum wage, the L&I handbook outlines. The studies are conducted twice a year to ensure a worker’s wage accurately reflects his or her productivity.

Seattle’s Commission for People with disAbilities is aiming to do what only Maryland and New Hampshire have: phase out the use of subminimum wages for people with disabilities by eliminating the certificates allowing them.

The wage increase would create different circumstances for each individual, be it an adjustment in hours, an assessment of their available benefits or potential placement in other jobs, Orr said.

He added he’s proud Seattle wants to take a strong stance on subminimum wages, and identified it as a civil-rights issue, one that’s close to his heart.

‘Clearly discriminatory’

In a letter to the City Council and the mayor in June, the Commission for People with disAbilities wrote that it’s an ideal time to end the practice.

“There are so few vouchers given right now,” Herbold said in an interview. “The minimum wage is increasing in Seattle, but it’s still a minimum wage.”

The goal, commission co-chair Cindi Laws said, is to get rid of the “clearly discriminatory” practice.

“People will always look for ways to pay some class of people less,” Laws said.

Shaun Bickley, employment chair for the Commission for People with disAbilities, spent a year after his move from Texas to Seattle researching the city’s wage laws. The current law, he said, wasn’t a surprise to him or his fellow commissioners.

“Most of these organizations don’t employ us,” Bickley, who has autism, said of unemployment rates across the country for people with intellectual disabilities. “And they don’t involve us in the decision making.”

Bickley said he reached out to employees who are paid subminimum wages at Ballard Market and Ballard First Lutheran Childcare, but neither employee wanted to speak on the matter. Ballard First Lutheran Childcare confirmed that if the law is changed, its employee’s wages will be raised to minimum by the end of the year.

The commission’s letter to the City Council calls attention to the employee working in child care, saying it’s a job that can’t be measured by L&I’s standard time/motion study of productivity.

Others who support the change within the city, like Marci Carpenter, president of the National Federation of the Blind in Washington, say the natural next step is to address the issue at the state level, where hundreds of certificates are issued, mostly to nonprofit organizations.

Carpenter and Laws both expressed concern over prevocational training programs, which are intended to prepare workers with disabilities for jobs in the community and often pay subminimum wages.

From 2013 to 2015, the Northwest Center had 61 workers in prevocational programs. Most made a few dollars an hour, but some made a few cents, records show.

The program has since ended, said Emily Miller, human-resources manager at the Northwest Center, and under a federal change, all prevocational training will have to end by 2019.

“I think the momentum that we’ve built here in Seattle will help us in working on the state level next year,” Carpenter said.

What about the workers?

“It sounds good, doesn’t it? Makes you feel good. Makes your heart all warm and fuzzy,” said Wicklander. “But when it comes down to it, it isn’t.”

Wicklander’s son, Chris Wicklander, and another man for whom she is the legal guardian both have Down syndrome. They work at the Ballard Locks five and a half hours a day, five days a week, through a contract with the Northwest Center. They earn about $10 an hour.

In Christy Wicklander’s experience, the subminimum wage isn’t hindering or exploitative, it’s lifesaving.

Her son wakes up at 4:45 a.m. and is shuttled to the Ballard Locks to work as a janitor, Wicklander said. With a supervisor, the six workers complete the amount of work that would normally be done by two people. They make friends, socialize with the other workers and best of all, Wicklander said, they are productive members of society.

“If you have a kid with a disability, this is the ideal situation you want them in,” she said. “He’s feeling so competent and so capable. And his self-esteem has come miles.”

A change in the subminimum wage would threaten Chris Wicklander’s ability to both work and still receive Medicaid and disability benefits, his mother said.

The director of client operations at the Northwest Center, Jon Whipple, confirmed that the cap for a majority of its Ballard Locks workers is $1,170 a month. If they earn more, they’re at risk of losing their health care and federal aid.

If the minimum wage is enforced, workers could expect fewer hours of work each week. And for Chris Wicklander, that means more time sitting at home and more time out of the community, his mother said.

Christina Wells, the residential habilitation center program manager for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, echoed some of the same concerns. DSHS employs the highest number of people with disabilities in the state, through facilities like the Fircrest Residential Habilitation Center, Rainier School District and Lakeland Village.

Wells said the issue is complex. She agreed that some of the prevocational training services offered through the department could be affected if state rules on subminimum wages were to change.

This debate is not new to Miller at the Northwest Center, either.

“It would be ideal,” she said, “If those fighting for minimum wage for disabled workers would fight equally hard for raising the Social Security limitations or equal-employment opportunities.”

But the reality is, she said, if this change happens, many of these workers will see hours significantly reduced or lose their jobs altogether.

“Yes, most of them would like to be paid higher,” Miller said. “But the end goal is not to be sitting at home, alone. I think that gets lost in this discussion.”

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