[Above: Video from last year shows effort to end subminimum wage, which passed in South Carolina in 2022. — eds.]
by Skylar Laird, SC Daily Gazette
November 22, 2023
COLUMBIA — Angela Greene spent 20 years making as little as pennies an hour for cleaning houses.
The Columbia resident worked for a so-called sheltered workshop, which are employers allowed to pay people with disabilities less than minimum wage under a federal waiver. Her biweekly paychecks ranged from 50 cents to $3.50, depending on how much work her boss said she did.
With less than a year to go until the Legislature-set deadline to phase out subminimum wages, some companies have already done so or have plans in the works. A task force of advocates is studying what needs to be done to meet the August deadline and will likely seek money from the state budget to help.
More than 1,000 people with disabilities work for less than minimum wage at 17 sheltered workshops in South Carolina. In some cases, they are paid pennies an hour for work that ranges from cleaning to manufacturing, such as applying labels to bottles or assembling mouse traps.
When the federal government created a standard minimum wage in 1938, it included an exception. So long as a company got a certain certification, known as 14(c), from the federal Department of Labor, it could pay people with disabilities based on their productivity instead of a flat hourly rate. Since then, 13 states, including South Carolina, have banned the practice.
Some family members of people who have spent years, or even decades, working in sheltered workshops, fear the transition, said Kimberly Tissot, president of disability advocacy group Able South Carolina. But in the end, it won’t take away jobs, she said: It will just change what work people are doing and how much they’re making for it.
“No one is going to lose their job from this, and that’s something we promised in the very beginning,” Tissot said. “Things may be looked at a little differently, but they’re going to have more meaningful opportunities.”
Before the Legislature banned subminimum wage in 2022, the state had 25 companies authorized to pay people less than minimum wage, according to U.S. Department of Labor data. With nine months to go until the deadline, that total is down to 17.
“Many of the employers who had previously paid subminimum wages have already phased out these programs and moved their folks into integrated settings with better pay,” said Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, who was part of the push to pass the law. “Those that remain are in the process of weaning themselves off.”
There’s no comprehensive list of where each of the state’s workshops stands. The state Department of Disabilities and Special Needs is in the midst of a survey to find out.
But the examples the task force knows about are promising, Tissot said.
Thrive Upstate, which was once the state’s largest employer of people making less than minimum wage, no longer has anyone in its workshops, where people once sat at long tables, folding boxes and sorting screws. Neither does Columbia’s Babcock Center, where people did jobs like counting and bundling sheets of advertisements.
The Burton Center, which had 166 workers across the Midlands working for less than minimum wage, now has only a handful. Tri-Development Center in Aiken, which had 51 subminimum wage workers, plans to phase out the practice by February, Tissot said.
That doesn’t mean the task force’s work is done for those workshops.
“There are still probably some opportunities where we could be helpful to them in training and that kind of thing,” said Valerie Bishop, a task force member and executive director of the Developmental Disabilities Council, a division of the state Department of Administration.
In some cases, such as at the Burton Center, the workshop simply raises everyone’s pay. In others, such as Thrive Upstate, the organization found ways to help people find jobs in the community, which is the ultimate goal.
“The institutional model was phased out a long time ago, but what we ended up doing is creating small institutions at different organizations,” said Tyler Rex, executive director of Thrive Upstate. “We realized, that’s not community inclusion. That’s not community integration.”
None of the 400 or so people who worked at Thrive Upstate’s sheltered workshops makes minimum wage.
Not only has everyone who wanted work found it, Rex said, they’re all making at least $9 hourly, which is $1.75 above minimum wage.
To start, the workshop’s employees sat down with job coaches, who asked what sort of job they might like.
In many cases, people’s new jobs are the same or similar to what they were doing before. The specifics vary, but many of Thrive Upstate’s workers have done well in manufacturing or hospitality jobs, Rex said.
“Sometimes, the process can go really quickly,” Rex said. “Other times, depending on the severity of disability or the skill level of the individual, it can require some customized approaches where we have to identify the right employer and really do job matching.”
During the process, Rex realized about half of his employees didn’t actually want to work. They just did the job because they were told to, he said.
So, Thrive Upstate moved those who decided they didn’t want to work into the organization’s day programs, where they can volunteer or take classes — anything to get them out of the house and into the community, Rex said.
“We are working to get everyone out of our buildings on a daily basis and out into the community on one of those two paths, so that folks aren’t just sitting at our facility doing either mindless work or mindless activities,” Rex said.
For those who do decide to take another job, the coaches continue to follow up and help them develop the skills they need. Often, those are “soft skills” for employment: interacting with colleagues and customers, communicating frustrations to supervisors, even dressing appropriately for the job.
As people become more comfortable in their jobs, the coaches step back, Rex said.
The Greenville nonprofit started to phase out minimum wage even before the state’s mandate. While other workshops may not follow its model exactly, it at least provides an example of what can be done, Tissot said.
“There are a lot of really promising practices that are being developed,” Tissot said.
The disabilities department’s survey will determine much of what the 13-member task force does next, members said during a Monday meeting.
At least part of that will involve state funding. Without the results of the survey telling the task force what sheltered workshops owners say they most need, no amount has been set or even predicted yet.
But Tissot said she expects two major areas to need funding. One will be helping workshops that can’t figure out how to financially increase pay in time for the deadline. The other will be transportation.
Many workshops had buses taking people to work every day. A lack of transportation can prevent people from finding other jobs, Tissot said. One workaround could be getting special permission from the state to use Medicaid funding to pay for a bus service or other transportation to take people with disabilities to work.
For Greene, who now works cleaning up and setting tables in a dining room, making more than minimum wage made all the difference in being able to support herself.
“Extra money means independence,” Greene said. “For me, that means being able to get some of the things I like and do some of the things I like to do, but mostly it helps my needs, like helping with rent and upkeep of my home.”
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