Ohio proposes bill to eliminate sub-minimum wage

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — There are renewed efforts at the Ohio Statehouse to make sure Ohioans with developmental disabilities earn a fair wage.

“This is not an issue that is a Democrat or Republican issue,” Representative Dontavius Jarrells (D-Columbus) said. “This is a human rights issue.”

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“Disabled people, they have a voice, and maybe the voice is louder than it was ten years ago, but it is still a whisper,” Representative Scott Lipps (R-Franklin) said. “And that’s not fair.”

House Bill 427, sponsored by Jarrells and Lipps, seeks to eliminate sub-minimum wage. Sub-minimum wage allows employers who apply and receive a Special Wage Certificate to pay employees with developmental disabilities around $4 an hour, sometimes less.

“I think we are at a point and time in history that all people have the right to make at least minimum wage,” co-president of the Ohio Association of People Supporting Employment First (APSE) Jan Dougherty said.

“There are families who want to see sub-minimum wage transitioned away, and some families say, ‘This is the best thing my child has ever been in,’” Jarrells said. “We can build something that is based on consensus.”

Dozens of companies across the state opt into the program to pay sub-minimum wage but HB 427 would phase it out in five years after passage, requiring Ohioans with disabilities to be paid minimum wage, at least.

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“These are some of the most hard-working Ohioans we have in the state,” Jarrells said. “So many of these individuals can and work and they do it well. And what we want to do is make sure our statutes in Ohio live up to their lived experiences and fairly compensates them.”

Lipps said one of his worries is that without a sub-minimum wage, people with disabilities would lose out on employment opportunities.

“It’s probably the entire argument and why it’s taken so long,” Lipps said. “We do not want to lose that opportunity, we want to make sure the wages are fair, but gain this opportunity. Where do we find that mix of the employer being able to afford to hire disabled individuals?”

“Anytime sub-minimum wage is brought up in conversation, there’s a fear behind it,” Dougherty said.

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Though Lipps does work to advocate for disabled Ohioans, he was opposed to the elimination of the sub-minimum wage program two years ago. He said he is still “fundamentally opposed” to the elimination unless it is done correctly.

“It gives the employer the right to pay them less,” Lipps said in September 2022. “Not less than their value, they pay them up to their value.”

Lipps said he stands by his statement from 2022.

“I do stand by that,” he said. “I don’t want to demonize an employer who allowed an individual to make $3 because otherwise, they will turn it into zero.”

But Dougherty said those working for sub-minimum wage know the difference. She said one disabled Ohioan was planning to spend their first paycheck on her first trip to the hair salon but could not. But she said when disabled Ohioans have transitioned from sub-minimum wage to a minimum wage job, they have been able to do things like save up for a cruise or buy an Ohio State football ticket.

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“They know the purchasing power behind it, and I think that’s what all of us know about our paychecks,” Dougherty said.

Two years ago, the bill aimed to eliminate the program immediately; the proposed five-year runway is one of the main differences in this new version.

“We will begin to see individuals steadily rolled off, to the point where when the five years come to an end, most of the individuals will be transitioned off sub-minimum wage,” Jarrells said.

But Lipps said the five-year timeframe is a jumping off point to create conversation.

“Something has to push them; this is the catalyst, this bill will create activity, which will create an answer,” Lipps said. “If the employment first initiative comes back and says we need eight years, we will modify the bill to eight years.”

Lipps said he wants to be sure to “honor” the work of companies hiring Ohioans with disabilities, while changing the law.

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“It has to be a combination of employers being willing to step forward, and the community being willing to step forward, and taxpayers being willing to step forward,” Lipps said. “If everybody adds to that, we will get that person to minimum wage.”

Lipps said one employer who does “great work” in this area is Honda. NBC4 did reach out to Honda, but they said, “We haven’t had a chance to review the details of HB427 and are not in a position to comment on it.”

ARC Industries, for example, also employs disabled Ohioans but said they eliminated the use of their Special Wage Certificate in 2020, meaning all their employees are at least paid minimum wage.

“Individuals who are working in Ohio deserve to get paid at least minimum wage; that’s what I believe this bill showcases,” Jarrells said. “Every word, every thought, every idea was curated by those families who said, ‘We can do something better in Ohio.’”

Jarrells sponsored the bill two years ago, too, and he said throughout these past two years and in crafting the bill, he has heard one common theme.

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“What’s at heart of the conversation is families saying, ‘I just want my child to feel seen, heard and valued in Ohio,’” he said.

Lipps said though he is signed onto the bill now, as well as one other Republican co-sponsor, he has found it “difficult to recruit” other Republican representatives in this space.

“I can name 20 state reps who would drop and take a call and work with me on this,” Lipps said. “But there are 99 of us.”

But both Jarrells and Lipps said at the very least they want to have the conversation and kickstart change.

“If this starts the conversation then we’ve done our job,” Lipps said. “If we get it across the finish line and get the community to support it, then we’ve really done our job. But don’t get your hopes up. Things move slowly in Columbus.”

The bill has yet to have its first hearing and has not yet been assigned to a committee.

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