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Bill to ban paying SC workers with disabilities less than minimum wage moves closer to becoming law

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Published: May. 9, 2022 at 7:54 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) -A law that allows employers to pay people with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage could soon be taken off the books in South Carolina.

Legislation to abolish the subminimum wage has now passed both chambers of the State House, though changes made to it last week in the House of Representatives have put the bill back in the Senate’s hands with three days left in the regular legislative session.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, nearly 3,000 people with disabilities in South Carolina were being paid less than the minimum wage just before the pandemic began.

That number has since dropped to nearly 1,000 people, according to the department, but advocates hope it could soon be zero.

“As one of the largest minority groups in the whole entire country, we should no longer see people with disabilities as less than. We are citizens just like everybody else, and we deserve to be paid equally among our peers without disabilities,” Able SC President and CEO Kimberly Tissot said.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, employers with a U.S. Department of Labor-approved waiver can legally pay less than the federal minimum wage — currently $7.25 an hour — to workers with disabilities, defined as those “whose earning or productive capacity is impaired by age, physical or mental deficiency, or injury.”

Currently 14 employers across South Carolina hold that certificate. Most of those are organizations that work to help people with disabilities gain employment skills and jobs, and some have said this practice allows them to employ people with severe disabilities who may not be able to competitively work otherwise.

“They’re still going to have to get somebody to do that job,” Sen. Katrina Shealy, R – Lexington and the bill’s primary sponsor, said. “So are they going to get somebody without a disability to work for 25 cents an hour?”

Shealy said people with disabilities should not be treated any differently than other workers.

“As long as they can do the same job, they should make the same pay, and I think they’ve been taken advantage of,” she said.

This legislation would create a 13-member task force to develop a plan to phase out the subminimum wage while still ensuring employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

If it becomes law, subminimum wages would no longer be legal by Aug. 1, 2024.

“South Carolina has some lack of services for people with disabilities as well, and so this will give us enough time to plan what’s next, how can we build skills, how can we engage in meaningful activities that really respects the rights of people with disabilities,” Tissot said.

The bill passed the Senate last year, the first year of a two-year legislative session, and passed the House last week with changes to it, adding on the “Employment First Initiative Act,” sponsored by Rep. Neal Collins, R – Pickens.

“It asks employers to look at the disability community when you hire. It’s not a mandate; it’s not saying you have to. It’s just sort of a resolution saying, ‘How about looking at the people with disabilities? Don’t just discard them and say just because you have a disability, you can’t do the job,’” Shealy explained.

Shealy called the amendment “a perfect fit” to add to her bill, saying she will ask her Senate colleagues to concur with that change but request another commission created by that part of the legislation be reduced from 17 members to nine.

House members would then be able to agree with the Senate’s change or opt for a smaller group of members from both chambers to work out a compromise to send to Gov. Henry McMaster.

If this does become law, South Carolina would become the 13th state overall and the third in the southeast to do away with the subminimum wage for people with disabilities.

“This has been a long time coming, and I think this will really change the perceptions that people have about people with disabilities,” Tissot said.

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