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San Diego lawmakers fight for fair wages for disabled workers

By on March 5, 2014
Lorena-Gonzalez-headshot

Two San Diego lawmakers are calling on the federal government to end the practice of paying people with disabilities less than minimum wage.

Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez and State Senator Ben Hueso have introduced Assembly Joint Resolution 36 to increase pressure on Congress to repeal a Depression-era law, which people with disabilities describe as “humiliating, degrading, and making them feel like ‘second-class citizens.'”

Under Section 14 (c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, employers can apply for a special wage certificate that allows them to hire people with disabilities at a sub-minimum wage. Critics say that the law allows for the legal exploitation of people with disabilities and creates a separate system of worker rights for the disabled.

“Congress should phase out the use of the Special Minimum Wage Certificate provision and eventually repeal Section 14(c) of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act,” the resolution states.

Gonzalez: Legislature’s leading advocate workers

In October 2012, before being elected to the legislature, Gonzalez first expressed interest in the issue that affects more than 300,000 workers nationwide.

Ben-Hueso

“I believe all workers deserve a minimum wage and all work has dignity,” said Gonzalez, the legislature’s leading advocate for workers. “When I read stories about this Depression Era program, I knew we wanted to do something. However, since it is a federal program, we were limited in how we could help make change.”

Dr. Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, praised Gonzalez for introducing the resolution.

“The National Federation of the Blind commends Assemblywoman Gonzalez for recognizing the value of workers with disabilities and encouraging Congress to repeal this antiquated law,” he said. “We urge the California Assembly to finish the work Assemblywoman Gonzalez has started by passing AJR 36.”

Last November, as the National Federation of the Blind and Autistic Self Advocacy Network announced that more than 170,000 people had signed its Change.org petition, Gonzalez was quietly gathering support among her colleagues. Hueso, a fellow San Diego Democrat, shared Gonzalez’s concerns about what he sees as a “civil rights issue.”

“Retracting the Special Minimum Wage Certificate provision of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act is necessary to ensure equal rights for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” said Hueso. “This is a civil rights issue. As legislators, it is our responsibility to ensure that there is no disparity in the workforce.”

Goodwill Industries: Most Well-Known Sub-Minimum Wage Employer

In recent years, Goodwill Industries has become the poster-child for exploitation of workers with disabilities. More than 100 Goodwill entities nationwide employ workers through the Special Wage Certificate program. Last year, a Watchdog.org investigation revealed that these same Goodwill entities that use the special wage program simultaneously spent $53.7 million in total executive compensation. A month after the Watchdog report, an NBC investigation repeated the same findings.

Goodwill pays executives millions, while workers get pennies.

Goodwill pays executives millions, while workers get pennies.

The resolution alludes to the media controversy.

“It has been widely documented that many of the organizations which employ disabled persons are in financial situations that would enable them to pay minimum wage to all of their disabled employees, evident in the high compensation packages paid to their executives,” the resolution states.

Goodwill uses the special minimum wage exemption to take advantage of 7,300 of its 105,000 employees. The organization says that it performs routine productivity tests in compliance with the law. Gonzalez’s resolution describes this as “singling out of disabled workers given that the general workforce is not subjected to standards of timed productivity, the time study practice to determine wages is both inconsistent and unfair.”

“We at least want to bring attention to what we think is an outdated policy and start a discussion about the value of disabled workers,” said the former secretary-treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council.

For more about Goodwill Industries, check out Goodwill Investigation at JohnHrabe.com.

AJR 36 Goodwill Disabled Workers Resolution

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About John Hrabe

John Hrabe spends his time traveling the world as a freelance journalist. When he isn’t on an international flight, John writes about state and national politics for CalWatchdog.com, FlashReport.org, Huffington Post and the editorial pages of the Orange County Register. John’s most recent high-profile investigation uncovered the questionable labor practices of Goodwill Industries, the nonprofit organization famous for its secondhand clothing stores.

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