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Disability Action Center NW

Ohio disabled work for under minimum wage

COLUMBUS, OHIO

Thousands of Ohio adults with developmental disabilities earn less than the minimum wage — a situation that critics say exploits workers and supporters say provides more opportunities for the disabled to have jobs.

At least 14,600 disabled Ohioans make less than the minimum wage, and the number is likely much higher, but wage information is not public in 18 of Ohio’s 88 counties, The Columbus Dispatch reported. The newspaper analyzed federal wage documents from 69 of the 70 counties that support workers with developmental disabilities through taxpayer-funded agencies and operate employment centers.

A provision in the federal wage law allows employers to pay less than minimum wage if adults have disabilities limiting their productivity, the newspaper reported in the first two parts of a series that began Sunday.

Curtis Decker, director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Disability Rights Network, says “it’s immoral.”

Norma Williams says her autistic son’s low-wage job in Columbus allows him to have a purpose in life.

“He has a place to go and a reason to get up in the morning,” she said. “I don’t care about the money.”

Statewide, about 21,000 disabled Ohioans receive services through their counties and are employed, and most of the low-wage earners are employed in sheltered workshops — quasi-industrial settings resembling factories that bid on jobs with government agencies and private companies for contract work, the newspaper reported.

More than 80 percent of the low-wage work force earns an hourly wage of $3.70 or less, with about 35 percent of them — or 5,200 workers — making less than $1 an hour, the newspaper reported. Nearly 1,000 make less than 25 cents an hour.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

“It’s concerning in terms of overall numbers,” said John Martin, director of the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities that oversees the statewide system. “But I don’t have a concern that people are being taken advantage of.”

County officials say federal requirements do not allow room for error or subjectivity, and some say that their budgets and the revenue generated by the contracts cannot support higher wages.

Troy Thompson, 30, has autism and works at an art studio at one of Franklin County’s sheltered workshops, where he earns commissions of about $80 a month based on the work sold. Thompson gets some government benefits and earns $5 an hour as a janitor.

“I want to find higher-paying jobs,” he said.

The economy also has worked against disabled workers, decreasing the contract work on which workshops have relied.

Advocates for the disabled also believe more can be done in Ohio to help find community-based work for disabled adults that would pay better.

“I think our challenge is convincing employers that people have skills, even with disabilities,” said Jed Morison, superintendent of the Franklin County Board of Developmental Disabilities.

John Pekar, superintendent of the developmental-disabilities boards in Fairfield County and Vinton County, and has helped art studios to grow in both counties.

“A lot of it is knocking down stereotypes,” he said.

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Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com