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Disability Rights Groups Call for End to Sub-Minimum Wage

Ashley Gross
Disability rights activists Tanna Shoyo, Matt Young and Marci Carpenter. Shoyo and Carpenter are with the National Federation of the Blind and Young is with the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network.

You may be surprised to know that under federal law, employers may not have to pay minimum wage if the worker is disabled. Now, disability rights activists in Seattle are joining a national movement to change that law, which dates back to 1938.

Among the activists is Marci Carpenter, president of the Greater Seattle Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind. She and a couple of others recently showed up at a Goodwill thrift store in Shoreline with a stack of petition signatures—a stack of paper so tall they had to push it in on a dolly.

"These 5,000-plus pages are the petition opposing payment of sub-minimum wages to workers with disabilities, and [there are] over 170,000 signatures on those petitions," Carpenter said. 

To be clear, the Shoreline Goodwill, along with other Seattle-area locations, does not use the federal program to pay less than minimum wage; all of its employees make at least Washington state minimum wage.

But across the state, 50 employers, including a couple Goodwill locations, have applied for permission to use the waiver.

Carpenter wants Goodwill’s national organization to end the policy across the country. She says there are blind workers who only make $2 or $3 an hour working at a Goodwill in Montana.

"They don’t feel empowered or good. They would like to get into other employment, but as with many people, this has become a dead-end job, and no one is helping them to try to transition out," Carpenter said. 

In Tacoma, a spokesman for Goodwill says the location pays at least the state's minimum wage to all of their employees. But he says the waiver is a valuable tool for employing people with severe disabilities who might not otherwise be able to work.

Congressman Gregg Harper from Mississippi has introduced a bill to get rid of the sub-minimum wage for workers with disabilities. 

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.