Under Paid: Fixing the wage gap for special needs employees

Under Paid: Fixing the wage gap for special needs employees

MISSISSIPPI (WDAM) - When Rachel Hallmark goes to work, she has a laser focus, perfect for her job of sorting hospital documents.

Rachel's father, Cory Hallmark, said she has the mental capacity of an 8-12 year old, but she has blossomed since working at the Lowe Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

"She found her way, she found her work, found her task, found her socialization," Cory Hallmark said.

Rachel is just one of thousands of people with special needs who earns less than minimum wage each year, an average of $2.50 per hour. This is legal under federal law. Companies with special wage or 14 (C) certificates can pay disabled workers less than minimum wage, based on a formula that factors in their productivity.

"Her two dollar, three dollar or four dollar paycheck means more to her than the paycheck I draw means to me," Rachel's father said, smiling as his daughter sorted papers.

United States Rep. Gregg Harper (R- Miss) is worried some companies are taking advantage of people like Rachel, arguing that 14 (C) is outdated.

"This is something that it's time has come and gone," Harper said.

Harper introduced the TIME Act in early 2015. If successful, this would phase out special wage certificates during a three-year period.

"We believe that someone who has those special needs, whatever they are, can work and earn and be trained to earn at least a minimum wage," Harper said, reflecting on his own son's experience in the workforce as an individual with special needs.

While Harper's intentions seem positive, the executive director of an Alabama ARC sees the potential for negative effects.

"What we're seeing in different kinds of research, in many of these states where they've done away with sub-minimum wage, that the individuals are just going into day habilitation where they have no opportunities for work," ARC's Susan Klingel said.

Klingel said if the special work certificates were eliminated under the TIME Act, the jobs that provide rehabilitative therapy for employees with special needs would likely go away as well.

Harper said wage or occupational limits should not be placed on people with disabilities since many of them can transition into the traditional work force, although he said 95 percent do not transition or move up, despite that being the intention of the original legislation.

The TIME Act has a number of sponsors, but it has stalled in the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections.