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Some Minnesotans with disabilities earn less than minimum wage; meet the advocates working to change that

The Minnesota Department of Human Services is forming a 19-member task force to eliminate subminimum wage by August of 2025.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota is taking steps to join several other states that have repealed federal legislation dating back to 1938 that allows people with disabilities to be paid subminimum wages. Disability activists like Brittanie Wilson, of St. Paul, say it's a long time coming.

Wilson feels thankful she earns competitive wages. The 34-year-old is a communications officer for the Minnesota Council on Disability, and has always made more than minimum wage.

But Wilson, who uses a wheelchair, knows that not all people in her situation are afforded that right.

"As a woman of color with a disability, I know that the most marginalized in the community are people of color with disabilities," Wilson said. "When I graduated from high school, there was a very real chance that I could possibly be in a setting that paid subminimum wage."

However, Wilson said because she had supports and services, she was able to secure jobs that made minimum wage, though it didn't come without challenges.

"I am very used to being one of the only people with a physical disability in the office," she said. "One of the first people with a disability to be hired within a company, even."

Minnesotans with disabilities are more than three times more likely to live below the poverty line (24.7% of disabled population) than their typical peers (7.9% of typical population), according to 2018 data from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

It's part of the reason Wilson says she stepped up her advocacy efforts two years ago and has now applied to become a member of a new task force the Minnesota Department of Human Services is creating to create a plan to eliminate subminimum wage in Minnesota, a measure that six states had taken prior to 2021. Legislation passed in June outlines the creation of the 19-member group which is set to start meeting in January. Applications closed October 21.

A blue outline of Minnesota with text that reads: Females with disabilities have the lowest average earnings at...

Posted by Minnesota Council on Disability on Tuesday, October 19, 2021

"This isn’t just about those who make subminimum wage, this is about the movement," said Wilson. "This is about uplifting people with disabilities, and this is about saying no matter your disability status, you deserve to make a wage that you can live off of."

Federal legislation dating back to 1938 allows employers with a Section 14(c) certificate to pay people with disabilities less than minimum wage. Jillian Nelson, of the Autism Society of Minnesota (AUSM), knows it was a valuable move back then.

 "At the time this was thought to be a great way to get people with disabilities into the community and participating as well as a solution for businesses coming out of the Great Depression," Nelson said. 

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However, eight decades later, Nelson said much has changed. People with disabilities are going to school with their typical peers, and institutions have been shuttered. 

"The only remnant of substandard living for people with disabilities remaining in Minnesota is subminimum wage pay," she said.

However, Nelson acknowledges that eliminating programs that pay subminimum wages come with challenges. Having applied to the task force, she hopes to be a part of the team that works to come up with alternative options and business models to continue supports for people with disabilities who currently benefit from such programs.

"We want to make sure that Minnesota has a plan, so that the people that depend on the support, that depend on having a place to go every day, still have places to go and still have supports in employment but are making a minimum wage," said Nelson. "We firmly believe that those two things can exist together."

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