By redefining what it means to be an “employee,” state authorities hope to end a passionate debate over the state’s new minimum-wage law that could allow developmentally disabled workers, in some cases, to be paid less than $6.75 an hour.
Under a policy proposed by the state Industrial Commission, a person who works for his own primary or personal benefit can be considered a “trainee” and therefore not subject to the minimum wage.
A person who is hired to work primarily for an employer must be paid minimum wage or more.
The semantic twist is intended to allow developmentally disabled individuals who had been working under a federal labor-law exemption to continue their work, often at a pay that amounts to pennies an hour.
But it also would require training and an effort to help these workers progress in their skills, with the hope of eventually earning a job in the competitive labor market.
Agencies that provide services to the developmentally disabled have been pushing for a change to the voter-approved law since they realized that the new wage law did not exempt developmentally disabled people from the $6.75 minimum. Previously, they had been exempt because Arizona did not have its own minimum-wage statute.
The proposed policy, which will be the subject of a public hearing this week, pleases advocates for the disabled who argued that such workers should not be exempted from the law simply because they are developmentally disabled.
“In some cases, people will be able to work up to minimum wage with a job coach,” said Amina Donna Kruck, chairwoman of the Arizona Disability Advocacy Coalition.
The proposal also drew approval from the labor group that backed Proposition 202 in November’s election.
There is hope for the disabled worker to advance, said Rebekah Friend, president of the Arizona AFL-CIO.
“I think we have a heavy lift in Arizona, as society goes, to find opportunities for these people to earn minimum wage,” Friend said.
And for those individuals who can’t, the policy provides a way for them to keep doing meaningful work, even if their pay is sub-minimum.
Even if the policy gets favorable reviews and is incorporated into the law, work providers say the fix is not perfect. They are still hoping the Legislature acts on a bill that would provide them immunity from prosecution for continuing to pay developmentally disabled workers sub-minimum wages. That bill, sponsored by Rep. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, is stalled in the House.
They also say they’d like to take the policy that ultimately results from the Industrial Commission’s efforts and put it on a statewide ballot, to ensure there will be no more slip-ups in the wage law.
What: The Industrial Commission of Arizona is holding a hearing to gather public opinion on a proposed policy that attempts to resolve the controversy over whether Arizona’s new minimum-wage law applies to developmentally disabled workers.
When: 1:30 p.m. Thursday.
Where: Industrial Commission auditorium, first floor, 800 W. Washington St., Phoenix.
IF YOU GO