48 Investigates: Ending subminimum wage, will it end employment? - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

48 Investigates: Ending subminimum wage, will it end employment?

(WAFF) -

It sounds cruel and inhumane.  Some disabled workers are earning pennies per hour. After hearing about these extreme cases, one Mississippi congressman proclaimed, enough is enough!  

Nearly 425,000 people earn less than minimum wage each year. They make an average of $2.50 per hour.  Almost 75 percent of those workers are disabled. 

Is this legal?  Yes. In fact, the federal government set up the guidelines in 1938.  

Is it fair?  That depends on whom you ask. To get some perspective, we talked to a politician and a father whose daughter has cerebral palsy. Their answers may surprise you. 

Rachel Hallmark has a laser focus as she sorts through important hospital documents. Her father, Coy Hallmark, says Rachel has the mental capacity of an 8-12 year old.  Yet, ever since she started working at the Lowe Center in Huntsville, Rachel has blossomed.  Her father says she's never been happier.

"She found her way, she found her work, found her task, found her socialization." said Hallmark.

Rachel doesn't make much money. Sometimes, her paycheck is only a few dollars. Yet, her father says, the value of her work isn't measured by dollars and cents. He's seen firsthand what it's done for her self-esteem.  

"Her two dollar, three dollar or four dollar paycheck means more to her than the paycheck I draw means to me!" said Hallmark.

However, lawmakers like Mississippi Congressman Gregg Harper are worried some companies are taking advantage of people like Rachel. Harper says some disabled workers are making just pennies per hour. 

In fact, under federal law, companies with special wage or 14 (C) certificates can pay disabled workers less than minimum wage. Their pay is based on a formula that factors in their productivity. Yet, Congressman Harper thinks 14 (C) is outdated.  He says it's time for a change.  So, Harper has introduced the TIME ACT, which would phase out special wage certificates during a three year period. 

While Congressman Harper's intentions seem positive, some advocates for the disabled worry his legislation would have unintended, negative consequences. 

"What we're seeing in different kinds of research, in many of these states where they've done away with sub-minimum wage, that the individuals are just going into day habilitation where they have no opportunities for work."  said Susan Klingel, Executive Director of ARC of Madison County. 

Klingel says most of her clients have IQ's less than 70 and 99 percent of them don't drive. She maintains, if the special work certificates are eliminated, the jobs that provide them so much rehabilitative therapy will likely go away as well.

Yet, Congressman Harper argues, wage or occupational limits shouldn't be placed on people with disabilities since many of them can transition into the traditional work force.  Huntsville's John Robinson is a prime example of someone who's succeeded by overcoming large obstacles.

Robinson is so inspirational he just won an award from the Phoenix group, which helped him find his job with Habitat Restore in Huntsville.  Robinson gushes about how much he loves his job.

"Just something I gotta do. Gotta be here. Just like to come. It's like a home here and I miss it when I'm off." said Robinson.

Just five years ago, Robinson was struggling to survive, battling debilitating anxiety issues and a bipolar disorder.  However, thanks to employment coaching from Phoenix and through proper medication, Robinson has been able to land a regular wage job with Habitat Restore.  

"I get a little nervous when I work and I have a little bit more issues to deal with.  But, I put that aside when I come here and I put a smile on and I forget about it." admitted Robinson.

Most people support the theory that everyone deserves the respect of a living wage, However, CEO's with ARC and Phoenix say, it's hard to come up with a one-size-fits-all plan that helps everyone. 

They maintain Congressman Harper's bill would effectively slam the door on employment and positive therapy for thousands of workers who have profound disabilities.

The TIME Act has a number of sponsors, but so far, it has stalled in the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections.  We'll let you know if it moves forward.

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