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Utah Legislature Votes to Uphold Subminimum Wage for Disabled Workers

Disabled people across the country face discrimination, poor treatment and subminimum wages in the workplace.

Roughly 544 employees are being paid subminimum wage in Utah, according to one state lawmaker.

This story was originally published at Prism.

To some disability advocates and disabled people themselves, it feels like disabled people have been abandoned to fend for themselves. And in places like Utah — where major legislation that would increase disabled people’s quality of life continues to be struck down — that’s palpable.

During Utah’s legislative session in January, House Bill 205, the proposal to require Utah employers to pay disabled workers more, was struck down. The bill would have gradually phased out employers’ ability to pay less than the minimum wage (currently $7.25 in Utah) to workers with disabilities over two years. Nine employers in Utah currently utilize the exemption to pay subminimum wages to disabled workers. State Rep. Brett Garner, who introduced the bill, says there are roughly 544 employees being paid subminimum wage. But disability advocates in the state say even one is too many. Nate Crippes, the public affairs supervising attorney at the Disability Law Center of Utah, says advocates aim to continue the conversation to educate legislators on the issue in hopes of moving them.

This is just one of the latest developments in America’s consistent devaluing of disabled workers, for whom discrimination and poor treatment are common. Nationwide, companies from Amazon to Walmart have been accused of creating unsafe work environments for disabled people or keeping them out of work entirely. And with more people becoming disabled due to long COVID in this ongoing pandemic, the issue of discrimination against disabled people becomes more dire.

To fight some of the harms she’s faced and worries about others facing, Shelby Hintze, a disability advocate from Utah who lives with spinal muscular atrophy, went to the state legislature in last year’s 2023 session. She proposed a bill to protect disabled people from losing benefits. HB 252 would allow people who are permanently disabled to always maintain Medicaid to access the health services they need.

“What it would’ve done is basically move the income cap up to cover Medicaid for things that other insurances won’t cover,” Hintze told Prism. Hintze has been kicked off Medicaid because she makes “too much money” to qualify, according to the state. She now can barely afford personal care assistants to maintain her quality of life. When she spoke to representatives about her Medicaid proposal, Hintze said everybody was originally on board. One legislator she was particularly worried about even had a friendly conversation with her and agreed that these were the kinds of bills the state needs.

When it came time for the vote, the proposal was struck down. The bill did come back around for the 2024 session, to Hintze’s surprise and relief, but it was struck down again.

“Disability rights is definitely a backburner issue here,” Hintze said. Considering the number of disabled people in Utah, that feels baffling, she says. According to a December 2023 report from the Utah Department of Health and Human Services, 1 in every 4 Utah adults (26.4%, or approximately 647,000 people) has a disability.

According to Hintze, it felt hopeful to see something combating Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the exemption that allows businesses to pay disabled workers subminimum wage. While many states have passed their own laws to change the rule, others have lagged far behind. Utah is one of the remaining states that currently still upholds it.

Other states that once had the exemption in place have since corrected the issue. Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, and New Hampshire, among others, have banned subminimum wages. In a right-to-work state like Utah, where the power and presence of unions — which help to reduce pay gaps for disabled workers — are eroded, it’s especially concerning to advocates that the legality of paying disabled people less has been upheld this long.

Disabled people already face significant struggles securing employment and housing because of discrimination. Research shows that disabled adults are more likely to experience food insecurity, harm and abuse in relationships, and health limitations that greatly decrease quality of life. This compounds for the most marginalized people, with higher rates of disabilities in Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities, according to a 2023 study published in Frontiers in Rehabilitation Sciences. When disabled people’s quality of life is disregarded and they’re treated as separate by law, it sets the stage to devalue everyone.

“Most of us will experience disability sometime in our lives,” Nat Slater, a disability justice organizer and the director of equitable community engagement at Promise Partnership Utah, told Prism. “Disability can potentially happen to anyone at any time … In the disability world, we sometimes use the acronym ‘TAB’ (for temporarily able-bodied) to refer to non-disabled people and emphasize this fact.”

In Utah, the dominating presence of the Church of the Latter-day Saints sets the culture around how people talk about disability and treat disabled people.

“At best it promotes a patronizing ‘charity model’ approach, and at worst, it stigmatizes and dehumanizes disabled members,” Slater said. The impact of that charity mindset informs the current struggle for equal pay where “exploitation of disabled workers can be repackaged as a ‘service’ to the same individuals who are being exploited.”

Hintze shares that sentiment, saying, “We really romanticize this idea of the community helping their own and ‘not relying on government handouts’ as people say.” That attitude, however, leaves disabled people behind systemically. “This idea that we take care of our own people and our communities take care of each other and we don’t need to be told by the government to do it … it’s just not what’s happening in reality,” she added.

Because legislative sessions in Utah are only 45 days, there won’t be a new proposal for paying above subminimum wage for at least another year — and it could take many more to change the tide. Other bills relating to disabled workers that the Disability Law Center and disability advocates are watching this session that could have positive impacts for disabled people include HB 139, or the Mental Health Treatment Study, which aims to study and provide necessary supports for people living with mental illness, and HB 149, or the Earned Income Tax Credit Amendments, which could give disabled Utahns who work a little more money. Looking at the trends of disability bills that have passed, advocates are unsure of what might make it through this session.

“Our legislature is not particularly fond of spending money. Anything that is going to need considerable funding becomes a particular challenge,” Crippes said.

Leaving disability rights on the backburner is going to continue to come with costs, however. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, these labor rights are going to become increasingly personal for more people.

“What happens here in Utah directly impacts all 14(c) workers nationally, as well as non-14(c) disabled workers facing labor discrimination,” says Slater. “By upholding this type of discriminatory law, legislators make a very clear statement that disabled populations are not valued.”

Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice.

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