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Programs Warn Minimum Wage Rule Would Force Workshop Closures;
Some Advocates Say That Would Be A Good Thing

By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
December 20, 2006

PHOENIX, ARIZONA--Governor Janet Napolitano said this week that Arizona's constitution will not allow the Legislature to make changes to a new minimum wage law that some nonprofits warn would force them to layoff workers with developmental disabilities.

Last month, voters approved Proposition 202, which hikes the state's minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.75 an hour beginning January 1. The new law does not make an exception for several thousand Arizonans with developmental disabilities -- most in sheltered workshops -- who are currently paid less than the minimum wage under special federal 'sub-minimum' wage certificates.

The Arizona Association of Providers for People with Disabilities, which represents operators of sheltered and transitional employment programs, called for the Legislature to return for a special session before the holidays in order to change the law.

Randy Gray, the president and CEO of a Mesa program that employs about 500 workers with disabilities, told the East Valley Tribune that he would have little choice but to shut down his operations at the first of the month if the law is not changed.

"I have been working around the clock with high-paying labor attorneys who are saying that unequivocally, the net effect of this is we have to cease and desist all center-based workshop operations effective Jan. 1."

Supporters of the new law argue that there should be no exemption.

"These are workers," explained Rebekah Friend, president of the Arizona AFL-CIO affiliate. "Whether they're disabled or not, they're workers."

Some disability advocates have criticized sheltered workshops, saying that such programs discriminate against employees with disabilities, not only by paying them less than coworkers without disabilities, but also by segregating and isolating them from the community.

"People with disabilities have the same rights as everyone else, so if the Legislature says all people should be paid the minimum wage, then people with disabilities are included in that," Carrie Hobbs Guiden, executive director of the Arc of Arizona, told the Tribune.

On Wednesday, Napolitano said that a law passed eight years ago prohibits the legislature from making changes to voter-approved measures, except when the changes advance the intent of the voters, which would be a difficult case to make, here.

Besides, she noted, any change would need a three-quarters 'super-majority' vote.

Last week, Napolitano's office reported that, while calls to her expressed very strong opinions on both sides of the issue, it was clear that some disability groups believe work programs paying less than the minimum wage should be eliminated.

Under federal law, nonprofit organizations that employ people with disabilities can, under certain circumstances, pay less than the minimum wage. Most of these operate sheltered workshops in which such workers are paid a percentage of the prevailing wage for a particular job based on the speed they work, compared with that of workers without disabilities. In some cases, this could mean a monthly paycheck of just a few dollars for many hours of work.

Sheltered workshop providers have claimed that paying these "sub-minimum" wages allows them to employ workers who would not be hired elsewhere.

"Why would someone want to hire someone who works at 10 percent and pay them 100 percent?" Gray asked the Arizona Republic.

"Wage hike threatens disabled job centers"
"Wage law may take jobs from disabled" (Arizona Republic)
"Governor: Shield for voter-OK'd laws a limit on wage issue" (East Valley Tribune)


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