Disability rights advocates are hoping the controversy over the firing of workers by a downstate Goodwill Industries branch will give impetus to efforts to eliminate the subminimum wage for workers with disabilities at so-called “sheltered workshops.”

“This case highlights this practice,” and “the outrageousness” of the Goodwill branch’s position “should draw more attention to the issue,” said State Rep. Theresa Mah, who has introduced legislation to phase out the use of waivers which allow organizations employing people with disabilities to pay subminimum wages.

On Wednesday, Land of Lincoln Goodwill, which operates 15 stores in Central Illinois, reversed an earlier decision to stop paying most of its disabled workers — first reported by WCIA TV — after extensive negative reaction on social media and calls for hearings by legislators.

“We at Access Living are not surprised that a Goodwill branch would exercise poor judgment about the position of its employees with disabilities,” said Amber Smock, the group’s director of advocacy. “Goodwill has long been known in the [disability] community nationally as a group that pays less than minimum wage to some workers at some branches.”

She said Land of Lincoln’s initial decision — which its executive director claimed was in response to the increase in the state’s minimum wage — “appeared to use people with disabilities as cover for a political statement about the new minimum wage.”

State Sen. Julie Morrison said the nonprofit was using “false excuses,” pointing out that Goodwill has a federal waiver allowing it to pay subminimum wage to people with disabilities — along with $400,000 in state support to employ such workers.

Mah said she would push for consideration in the fall legislative session of her Illinois Dignity in Pay Act, which stalled in the legislature earlier this year.

The bill would establish a planning process “with all stakeholders at the table” to phase out the subminimum wage by 2024 and establish a state fund to help offset costs for nonprofits where necessary, Mah said.

“There is a huge reform that is needed with regard to employment of people with disabilities,” Mah said. “There are lots of people who should be trained to work in the integrated workforce. But it’s easier for some organizations to keep them in these sheltered workshops.”

Many workers in Illinois classified as having mild or moderate disabilities, including people with epilepsy, polio, visual impairment, deafness and learning disabilities, currently make less than $1 an hour, Smock said.

Under the bill, Illinois would join six other states that have phased out the subminimum wage, Smock said. She said a number of Illinois nonprofits, including Chicago Lighthouse and Thresholds/TRI Industries, have eliminated the model on their own initiative.

Access Living views the subminimum wage “as devaluing workers with disabilities,” Smock said. “The writing has been on the walls for many years: People with developmental disabilities want jobs, respect and fair pay.”

On the federal level, the group also supports the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act, which would freeze the issuance of subminimum wage waivers and phase out existing waivers while providing support to help sheltered workshops “change their models towards competitive, integrated employment with at least minimum wage,” Smock said.

Curtis is an opinion writer for The Chicago Reporter.

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