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Committee-approved bill would eliminate subminimum wage for disabled workers

State law allows some employers to pay disabled workers less than minimum wage.

That’s a good thing, say some advocates for the disabled, because many would not otherwise have jobs due to disadvantages in competing with non-disabled workers.

Subminimum wages are a bad thing, because it exploits a vulnerable population, say other advocates for the disabled.

Passion from both sides was displayed before the House Labor Committee Wednesday.

Sponsored by Rep. Hunter Cantrell (DFL-Savage), HF3433 would repeal state labor laws on people with disabilities and Minnesota Administrative Rules on subminimum wage rates for workers with disabilities effective Aug. 1, 2024. In order to ensure the repeals would not cause disabled workers to lose jobs, Cantrell said the bill would establish a task force to develop and implement a plan to slowly phase out subminimum wage laws.

“[This bill] ensures that people with disabilities are fully integrated and respected within all areas in our society, especially in the competitive workforce,” Cantrell said.

Receiving committee approval, HF3433 was referred to the House Government Operations Committee. Sen. Richard Cohen (DFL-St. Paul) sponsors the companion, SF3561, which is awaiting action by the Senate Jobs and Economic Growth Finance and Policy Committee.

State law currently permits subminimum wage rates to be paid to workers with disabilities only after receiving a permit from the Labor Standards Division. The subminimum rate is based on the extent to which a worker’s performance is limited, but it cannot be below 50% of the minimum wage.

Noah McCourt, a disability-rights activist, said repealing subminimum wage laws is all about advancing civil rights for people with disabilities.

“The opportunity to work for pennies an hour is discrimination and exploitation,” he said.

Rep. Mike Freiberg (DFL-Golden Valley) said the bill would help ensure that his child, diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, would have unlimited job opportunities. “I want my child’s work to be valued as much anyone else’s is in Minnesota.”

Other activists said the bill would severely limit job opportunities for workers with a disability because employers would have no incentive to hire workers who might be less productive than non-disabled workers.

Dawn Kovacovich testified that current law does not take away anyone’s right to work in a competitive workplace, and that the existing subminimum wage laws simply give workers with a disability more workplace choices.

Kovacovich’s daughter, Laura, has autism, glaucoma, and obsessive compulsive disorder due to being born prematurely. Laura said she needs the highly managed, sheltered, and protective environment that her employer provides for her in exchange for paying her a lower wage.

Both mother and daughter said the bill would be a disaster for many workers with a disability, such as Laura, who must cope with emotional and medical issues while on the job and cannot compete with non-disabled workers in a free-market labor economy.

“We live in a very competitive, capitalistic society, where disruptive behavior, high anxiety, and low productivity are generally not tolerated in the workplace,” Dawn Kovacovich said.

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