Disability advocates target St. Louis in anti-subminimum wage push

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St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay signed a new bill September 4 raising the city’s minimum wage to $11 per hour by 2018, but everyone may not be included.

On September 11, the city Board of Aldermen will consider a separate measure [PDF], explicitly exempting certain workers with disabilities, pursuant to a long standing controversial exception to the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The exemption applies to so-called “sheltered workshops,” nonprofit employers certified by the Department of Labor for the purposes of hiring people with disabilities deemed unlikely to be able to compete in the regular marketplace. These employers are exempt from federal minimum wage laws.

As originally written, the bill contained an exemption for these employers, but disability rights groups pushed back, arguing that the exception demeans and discriminates against people with disabilities.

Paraquad would never support subminimum wages for people with disabilities. Period,” Aimee Wehmeier, executive director and CEO of Paraquad, told the St. Louis Business Journal.

The finalized ordinance [PDF], passed by a 16-8 vote, did not include the exemption, a change which co-sponsor Alderman Megan Green said was the result of pressure from disability advocates.

“What it basically boils down to is their treatment…that they aren’t being valued at the same monetary level,” Alderman Green told the St. Louis Dispatch.

The city has four DOL-certified nonprofits, employing nearly 400 people with disabilities at subminimum wages. One of them, Industrial Aid, has already announced it will likely shut its doors if it is required to pay workers minimum wages. All 140 of the company’s employees are paid subminimum wages.

“If they can’t work in a competitive environment, and we can’t afford to pay them $11 an hour, where else are they going to work?” Executive Director Mark Stroud told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The bill, upon going into effect October 15, immediately raises the minimum wage from $7.65, the rate for the state of Missouri, to $8.25. It will then step up to $9 at the start of 2016, followed by $1 raises at the beginning of the next two subsequent years.

The federal minimum wage has been at $7.25 per hour since 2009, although President Obama signed an executive order in February 2014 raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour for federal contractors and prohibiting them from qualifying for the subminimum wage exception.