SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Workers with disabilities in California must be paid at least the state’s minimum wage by 2025, under a bill signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom late last month.

Senate Bill 639, by Sen. María Elena Durazo, D-Los Angeles, ends a practice known as 14(c) or sheltered workshops, in which workers with disabilities were paid as little as $2 an hour. The state will join 10 other states including Alaska, Oregon and Texas in phasing out the practice.

Supporters of sheltered workshops have said the practice has given jobs to thousands of Californians with disabilities, giving them self-confidence and life skills. Opponents said it led to exploitation of workers and are pushing to end the practice across the nation.

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Although the number of those in sheltered workshops has continued to drop, an estimated 10,000 or more California workers were in subminimum wage employment as of 2019, according to a recent report from the Disability Rights California citing the U.S. Department of Labor statistics.

Under the bill, the state can no longer authorize new employers to pay subminimum wages to their workers with disabilities. Those who have already been paying subminimum wages have until Jan. 1, 2025 to increase the pay for their workers.

There’s a condition, however. The State Council on Developmental Disabilities must create a plan detailing how the state can help workers with disabilities get the services and support needed to get jobs that pay them at least minimum wage. If the plan isn’t released by Jan. 1, 2025, employers can continue to pay their workers subminimum wages.

“The whole point of the plan is to do it carefully that it avoids unnecessary harm,” said Andy Imparato, executive director of Disability Rights California which lobbied for the bill. “We certainly want to be careful and make sure those workers have the alternatives when things they are in now are no longer available.”

A 2019 report submitted to the California Department of Developmental Services had found that $1.8 billion in extra state funding is necessary to meet the needs of providers and those with disabilities, including helping them find jobs.

The bill almost failed to get a majority in the state Assembly, passing the 80-member house with 45 votes. Some legislators spoke of their own experience raising children with disabilities as why they opposed the bill.

“We’re trying to help them. We’re trying to give them meaning in life and this piece of legislation takes that away from them,” said Assemblyman Devon Mathis, R-Visalia, when the Assembly debated the bill last month.

The National Council on Severe Autism sent a letter to Newsom urging him to veto the bill.

“The State Council on Developmental Disabilities and Senator Durazo must do better than to champion one (high functioning) sector of the disability population while throwing another sector under the bus,” the organization said.

One supporter was Sen. Sydney Kamlager, D-Los Angeles, who talked in a floor debate about raising her stepson, who is diagnosed with autism.

“It is about time that we see them for all that they are worth,” she said. “I can’t tell you the brilliance that comes from being touched by someone who is on the spectrum. I would ask you would take that into consideration.”

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