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In Minnesota, a state lauded for its exceptionalism, those with disabilities have been left behind. Several thousand people with disabilities earn far less than minimum wage, some as little as 7 cents an hour.
A different system is possible. With the right allocation of resources, Minnesota can advance the civil rights and economic inclusion of all people with disabilities. The bills before the Minnesota Legislature do just that: phasing out subminimum wages while investing in a more equitable, person-centered future. ("Some with disabilities will be harmed by changes," Opinion Exchange, March 15).
The Star Tribune's March 12 story, "Higher expectations," appropriately centers the people most impacted — people with disabilities who have earned subminimum wages. The recommendations of the Task Force on Eliminating Subminimum Wages, whose work informed the pending bills, are the result of significant research, community input, collaboration and deliberation. These efforts intentionally included people with disabilities and their families, though the perspectives of those respective groups differed.
Family members and guardians of people with disabilities identified wages as the least important of eight considerations when helping a family member find a job. However, of those surveyed who are currently earning subminimum wage, 75% identified not earning enough money as the top reason they do not like their job.
Today, 13 states have ended subminimum wage employment and several others have introduced legislation to do the same. The recently introduced legislation to phase out subminimum wages in Minnesota would not force existing employment providers to close or eliminate programming, it would only require that they pay at least minimum wage.
Current research supports shifting to more integrated employment services, finding that it leads to better outcomes across employment, health and independence compared to segregated employment. In Minnesota, many providers have already successfully transitioned their service models, showing that people with disabilities — with all kinds of support needs — can thrive in community jobs earning at least minimum wage.
The pending legislation includes funding for technical assistance to support other providers as they transition. Ongoing state initiatives demonstrate that with the proper resources and support, providers can expand their capacity to support individuals with finding and maintaining community employment.
In 2019, the Minnesota Disability Law Center reviewed subminimum wage providers in Minnesota. More than 80% offered only one type of work. Limited choice in employment results in a lack of opportunities to explore individual interests and develop new job skills. The opportunity to make an informed choice about employment is only possible when the state and service providers make a variety of options available.
Now, the Legislature can expand choice and invest in person-centered models of support for people with disabilities. Individuals' needs are different — some may need job training, some may need assistive technology, some may need one-on-one support — but everyone can succeed with individualized planning.
The available education, technology and employment services for students and adults with disabilities look much different today than they did in 1938 when Congress authorized the use of subminimum wages. Starting at age 14, students with disabilities are eligible for employment preparation services, and after finishing school, adults with disabilities can access waiver services that help them discover their interests and skills and find jobs. Ongoing job coaching support and counseling on how employment may impact benefits are available in addition to non-employment volunteer and recreation activities.
All these services will remain in place — and be strengthened — with the phase out of subminimum wages and investments in individualized services.
The Minnesota Disability Law Center supports the legislation introduced to phase out the use of subminimum wages as a civil rights issue and to expand choices and opportunities for people with disabilities and communities statewide.
Susan Fleurant is a staff attorney and Jonah Giese is a legal advocate at the Minnesota Disability Law Center of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid.