SPOKANE, Wash. — At 17, John Lemus took his first job, landscaping at Fairchild Air Force Base. He described it as “mostly just pulling weeds.” It was tiring work, but he was looking forward to his first paycheck.

When the check arrived he was crestfallen. It was about $70.

“I took it to my dad, and I said ‘What is this?'” Lemus said. “I think that was the turning point for me when I decided that I want better. That’s not how I’m going to move forward. I want a better life than this.”

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Lemus was diagnosed in 2003 with a mild developmental delay. When he was landscaping for Fairchild, he was paid below minimum wage due to a section of the Fair Labor Standards Act that issues certificates to employers of workers with disabilities.

Now as an AtWork! activist, Lemus is advocating to end that practice.

“Legislative policy work is what I love to do, and the subminimum wage issue has just been a huge piece that we’ve wanted to take on, and we’ve never seen it gaining this much traction,” Lemus said. “Legislators have always just said ‘Oh, these places are needed for those people,’ and that’s just the way it’s been.”

Now state and federal lawmakers are considering bills that would eliminate subminimum wage certificates. The first co-sponsor of the federal bill, authored by U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., was Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash. Two other Republicans have joined her in sponsoring the bill along with 10 Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.

“As you see more employers giving someone with disabilities a chance, what they’re finding is that they’re really good employees,” McMorris Rodgers said. “They are loyal, they’re hardworking, they show up every day excited to be there, ready to work hard, and they have a very positive impact on the culture, so I just think that this is an idea whose time has come.”

McMorris Rodgers said the timing is ideal because of record low unemployment — especially among minorities and those with disabilities. The federal bill has a six-year transition period that would provide support to individuals and employers in the form of grants, accommodation funds, job coaches and apprenticeship programs.

“There’s a growing number of organizations that are focused on helping employers make a transition and make this a positive, so I would encourage these employers to talk with some of these organizations, and I would be happy to connect them,” she said.

Something for everyone

As of July, Washington state had 20 companies that hold certificates. They employ 923 workers who are being paid less than minimum wage, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In Spokane, Artisans holds 69 of the certificates.

Polly Maxwell, Artisans’ executive director, said she thinks a lot of her clients will lose their employment if subminimum wage is eliminated. Artisans is a job placement organization for people with disabilities.

“The one thing that a lot of the individuals voting on the bill haven’t done is asked a lot of those stakeholders how they feel,” Maxwell said. “Do they want subminimum wage to go away, and they don’t. That’s the reason we’ve done what we do.”

Maxwell said the workers at Artisans in what’s called supportive group employment make $6.30 an hour on average. Some earn $2.64 at the low end, and $12 (the area’s minimum wage) at the high end.

Artisans finds their workers job placements at different group work environments, where all the workers have disabilities, with the exception of a job coach. Maxwell said they pair job sites with their clients’ interests. Artisans has held contracts with local government, Waste Management, Second Harvest and many others.

One of those group environments is at Pepsi-Cola, where workers repackage damaged products. In 2014, Pepsi’s Spokane facility was one of seven companies to win a Governor’s Employer Award “for their exemplary work recruiting, hiring, retaining and promoting individuals with disabilities.”

Lynne Fisher said her 36-year-old son, Jon Fisher, who has Down syndrome, has worked there for about 12 years.

“He loves to work,” Fisher said. “At the end of the week, when he’s done, one of the first things he asks me is ‘Am I working Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday?’ He can’t wait to go to work, he loves his job.”

Fisher said her son struggles with communication. He can understand what other people are saying, but finds difficulty expressing himself.

The easiest way for Jon Fisher to communicate is when he’s asked yes or no questions, Fisher said.

“He’s a young man of slow speech and if he’s around new people he’s acutely aware that he doesn’t speak like everyone else and so he gets anxious and he stutters a little bit,” she said.

Jon Fisher regularly works 15 hours a week, but about once a month picks up an extra shift and works 20. Fisher said her son is proud that he is one of the first people called if someone else calls in sick. She worries what will happen to him if the law passes.

“(The Americans with Disabilities Act) guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation,” Fisher said. “With that said, are we not then taking away the option for equal opportunity for someone like Jon who wants to stay in group employment because he feels safe there and because he feels capable there?”

Prior to his employment with Pepsi, he had independent work at Applebee’s.

Fisher initially thought her son was doing well there. His responsibilities included rolling silverware, busing and setting tables. Fisher had arranged the job through a company that works with disability employment, and Jon Fisher was supposed to have a job coach.

“I get a call from the manager, who was a phenomenal guy, and he said ‘You know, Lynne, I’m struggling for Jon because he’s just flailing here,'” Fisher recalled. The manager told her that the job coach hadn’t shown up for weeks, and Lynne said she was livid.

After the experience with Applebee’s, Fisher put her son in the Artisans program, and he has been with Pepsi since.

‘Bottom Dollars’

Last year, Spokane City Councilwoman Kate Burke attended a conversation that Lemus, in his capacity as a member of the Spokane Human Rights Commission, facilitated about subminimum wage at the Arc in Spokane. The talk featured a documentary about subminimum wage called “Bottom Dollars,” which was produced by Rooted in Rights, which is part of Disability Rights Washington.

Many Artisan parents and workers attended the conversation, and they were extremely upset about the documentary. Lemus said one woman told her daughter with Down syndrome to stand up.

“(She) said my daughter will never be capable of doing anything more than she’s doing right now,” Lemus said. “She’s never done anything more than she’s doing right now, so how do you know that? … That was awful, my heart just sank.”

Burke also noticed how upset the parents were with the movie’s message. So she decided to research the issue more.

Burke decided to set up a tour with Artisans, and visited the group work sites at Waste Management and Pepsi.

“I met some of the workers, and I was able to talk with some of the employees at the Artisans … what they had expressed to me was that a lot of these people like this specific job that they’re working on, and so they don’t want to leave it,” Burke said. “They did mention something about if they make too much money they wouldn’t qualify for certain amount of money from Social Security and so I was like, ‘Oh, these are kind of alarming things.'”

With the impression that the tour had left, Burke was thinking that she would no longer advocate for the subminimum wage, but she had a pit in her stomach.

“If you’re an elected official who’s just comfortable hearing one side and then walking away, you probably should retire,” Burke said. “I started researching and asking from people in the community and people in other communities what their thoughts were on this.”

She was connected with Shaun Bickley, who is diagnosed with autism and works for The Arc of King County. Bickley testified for the Washington bill, which passed the state House last week.

“I was missing a big component when I was thinking about this, and it’s all about human rights,” Burke said. “The system we’ve set up, it might be working for some people and it might be helping the Artisans with their programming, but the reality is, this is not justice for human beings.”

McMorris Rodgers agrees with Burke that the issue comes down to human rights.

“I’ve been concerned through the years that too many have been kept back, that they haven’t been given the opportunity to reach their full potential,” she said.

Piece by piece

Not all subminimum wage employers operate the same way. Another common pay structure for group employments exists at Tesh, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. It holds 38 certificates for subminimum wage employment. Frances Huffman, Tesh CEO, said workers’ pay is calculated based on productivity.

“They are paid by the volume of work they get done,” Huffman said. “So if they have a great day, they are at a higher wage than if they have a distracting day or a day that’s not as productive, but they get paid for the work that they get done.”

Huffman said that most of the group work at Tesh is assembly-related. They do something called “kitting” where workers will put together a “kit” for a company. Tesh is contracted by Avista, a utility provider, to assemble bags for their energy market fairs.

“We put a blanket and switch cover and a flashlight and several articles that would go in a bag and those then go to their marketing venues,” Huffman said.

They also do shredding, mailings and small parts assembly work.

Workers cannot enter the subminimum wage jobs at Tesh until they are at least 25, partially because Tesh is connected to Project Search, a yearlong internship program for high school graduates with disabilities that meets at Kootenai Health.

The students learn a variety of job skills based on their interests and skill levels and take business internships within the community. Theresa Moran, a Project Search teacher in Coeur d’Alene, said the end of the program matches the students with employment that pays minimum wage or better.

She said most of the graduates average $9 to $10 an hour working 16 to 20 hours a week. Minimum wage in Idaho is $7.25.

“What we do during the year is we kind of look to see where their strengths are and what jobs in our community could best fill that need,” Moran said.

The graduates of the program have jobs as individual as they are. One student is working for Mountain West Bank, another is a barista at the Salvation Army Kroc Center. Another works for a car dealership.

“It’s really kind of finding where their niches are and then just really going based on that,” Moran said. Often, people with disabilities are pushed into janitorial positions even if they might be better at other kinds of work.

Moran supports a transition away from subminimum wage.

“Our students provide phenomenal work for their business, for the companies they work for when they finish the program,” she said.

Transitioning to minimum wage

There are organizations in Spokane — such as The Arc and AtWork! — that help people with disabilities find employment that pays minimum wage or better. One of the largest in Spokane is Skils’kin, which made the decision six years ago to transition out of subminimum wage job placements.

Brian Behler, Skils’kin CEO, said subminimum wage jobs were a minor part of Skils’kin’s work, but it “discredited” them with some in the community.

“It was clear, even five years ago, that this is a very toxic topic and the tide had turned,” Behler said.

Lemus had been working for Skils’kin during the time of the transition as a community relations facilitator, and he said the organization had followed best practices when making the change. Behler said the most difficult part of the transition was that he had more than a dozen clients who immediately transferred to organizations that still offered supportive group employment.

“I understand it,” Behler said. “Work is a very complicated thing. If you’re not working for a paycheck, you’re working for a lot of other reasons, and you are working to be part of something, and that’s the case from what I viewed for individuals with significant disabilities.”

Clayton Wright’s son, Aaron, also works in supportive group employment through Artisans, where he has worked with a recycling team for the last three years. Aaron makes $4.40 an hour and works between 8 and 12 hours a week. Maxwell said she spends an hour a week exploring options of independent employment with Aaron.

“In our county, anybody in group supportive employment making subminimum wage also has the choice to look for individual employment at the same time,” Maxwell said. “If they become employed, they can leave the group supportive program at subminimum wage and go into the other program, so they’re not stuck in subminimum wage like people are led to believe.”

Wright said his son has a lot of pride in putting on his work uniform in the morning and packing his lunch for himself.

“Children like mine have a significant enough disability that they can’t work productively at a minimum wage in any kind of reasonableness to the employer,” Wright said.

Wright said he agrees with the idea of workers with disabilities receiving minimum wage “philosophically in terms of a matter of equality and justice and respect” but that he believes that if subminimum wage is eliminated, kids like his will be out of a job.

“It saddens me,” Clayton said. “I don’t want my child to sit around with really very little to do, and I think the majority of parents would — the people I know — have the same issue. Without employment, our kids really don’t have a lot going for them, in terms of things to do.”

Lemus said it is all a matter of expectations. He worries that parents who have children with disabilities have low expectations because that’s all they’ve ever known.

“There are folks who have high support needs who are working in community-based employment at minimum wage or higher so we know that it can be done,” Lemus said. “It’s just a lot of these parents haven’t been given an option. That subminimum wage, it’s the only thing that they know and the only thing that’s been offered to them.”

Lemus recognizes that, as a disability advocate, part of his job is to put himself in the shoes of the parents of children with disabilities, a significant stakeholder in the community.

“Working with those parents and being invited into their lives, seeing their struggles has made me a better advocate because I have some understanding of what they deal with,” Lemus said. “… being a parent of a child with developmental disabilities is an awfully hard job. I know how difficult it was for my parents.”

© 2019 The Spokesman-Review
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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