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Sen. Thomas Middleton, D-Charles County and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.. (File)

Minimum wage bill for disabled Md. workers called a battle for civil rights

A bill that would eliminate a program allowing people with disabilities to be paid a subminimum wage was the subject of lengthy hearings last week before House and Senate committees.

For both sides, House Bill 420 and Senate Bill 417, is about civil rights. For its supporters, the bill, called The Ken Capone Equal Employment Act, is about giving people with disabilities the right to make a living wage. To its opponents, the bill is about protecting the rights of people with severe disabilities to work at all.

As of 2015, close to 3,600 Marylanders were employed under what are known as 14(c) certificates, which were created under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to allow certain businesses to pay workers with disabilities less than the minimum wage.

Twenty percent of individuals with developmental disabilities in the state work in facility-based settings, where they work an average of 17.33 hours over a two-week period and make $66, the bill said.

“That’s not acceptable,” said Del. Jeff Waldstreicher, D-Montgomery, the bill’s House sponsor, during a hearing last week before that chamber’s Economic Matters Committee.

“No other group is treated this way,” added Ken Capone, the bill’s namesake and public policy coordinator for People On the Go at the Maryland Center for Developmental Disabilities at Kennedy Krieger Institute. (Capone was once an intern for Sen. Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore County, who is the bill’s Senate sponsor.)

Fifteen percent of the labor force at Acadia Windows and Doors in Baltimore is supported by The Arc, a group that advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Neill Christopher, Acadia’s vice president of manufacturing, testified that doing so is purely a business decision. The workers from Arc are paid the same as a non-disabled worker would be paid for that work. Christopher said all of the workers supported by The Arc have been paid at or above minimum wage.

“We don’t do it because we’re nice guys. We do it because it impacts our bottom line,” he said, speaking in support of the bill. “This is a tremendously talented pool of people.”

Infringing on rights?

Chet Lawrence’s son, David, has severe developmental disabilities. He packages and labels items at 15 percent the rate of a person without disabilities. His paycheck can be around $8, if not lower. But for the younger Lawrence, the work is not about the money.

“The paycheck is very important to him regardless of the amount,” his father testified.

If this bill passes, however, Lawrence worries that his son will not be able to find work through programs such as Opportunity Builders Inc., a Millersville-based nonprofit that provides vocational training and employment services to adults with developmental disabilities.

“Requiring that the minimum wage be paid will infringe upon an OBI individual’s civil right to work,” he said. “I think this bill would infringe upon a group of people’s civil rights.”

The Chimes Inc., a nonprofit that provides services for people with disabilities, also helps integrate disabled people into traditional employment setting and has an in-house business incubator it opened last year to employ people with more serious disabilities that require supervision.

The organization has opposed the legislation.

“Our concern is this: the bill does not go far enough in terms of making sure that the resources necessary to successfully transition a system are there,” Chimes President and CEO Marty Lampner testified last week before the Senate Finance Committee.

But after hearing about the bill’s intentions from Kelley and committee chairman Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles, Lampner told The Daily Record on Friday he felt better about what the bill can accomplish.

Lampner specifically noted the senators’ plans to take a closer look at who the bill affects and what can be done to ensure a smooth transition out of the 14(c) certification program.

Middleton said Thursday the committee will form a workgroup that will include people from the numerous organizations that testified during the hearing.

That includes Chimes, Lampner said Friday, adding he is “honored and excited.”

“We can make this a bill that we can wholeheartedly support,” he said.