This makes me both angry and sad, but I can't tell which emotion is stronger. It just hurts my heart:
A California law meant to lift disabled workers could end up hurting them.
The premise of Senate Bill 639,
which by 2025 will phase out so-called sheltered workshops, is noble:
All people have a right to minimum wage and must not be exploited.
It’s a worthwhile aim in theory. But it’s a lot more complicated in practice.
This isn’t a grimy sweat shop with underage workers, or undocumented
laborers paying off debts to coyotes. This is a thriving community of
people building skills, friendships and respect under the practiced eye
of job coaches who know a task might take two or four or eight times
longer than someone without mental or physical limitations.
“All these happy, busy people are going to be challenged
to no end” in January 2025, said Carla Strong, Howard Prep’s executive
director. That’s when SB 639 takes effect, outlawing the compensation
structure currently paying 6,087 disabled people working for 80 entities
Proponents framed the bill as a civil rights issue. Why
would a progressive state like California allow employers with no
scruples to take advantage of workers without the acumen to stand up for
themselves? Doesn’t everyone deserve to be treated as equals? And what
screams inequity louder than the same work for less pay?
What might happen to these people you’re trying to help
if their employers cannot afford to pay them a higher wage? What if they
end up without a job and lose all the side benefits: socialization,
learning new skills, pride?
was hotly debated a couple of years ago by legislators, many of whom
had personal experience with disabled family members and did not agree
on the best pay approach. Experts also were divided; Disability Rights
California lobbied for the bill, while the National Council on Severe
Autism fought against it.
In the end, a majority opted for change and Gov. Gavin
Newsom signed the bill in 2021 along with 17 others in a worker
More than 25 years ago, in my previous job, I was a manufacturing manager for a small startup custom cable assembly company. Customers (Digital Equipment, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett Packard, etc) would design cables they needed, provide us with the specifications, and place orders with us. We'd buy all the necessary parts (raw cable, connectors, etc) and build the cables for them.
Sometimes, a connector would come packaged most inconveniently. It might have many different parts (shells, pins, screws, other hardware), and each part would come individually packaged in tiny plastic bags, and all the baggies with parts for one connector would be sealed in a somewhat larger plastic baggie. We had to open and separate all those parts before we could begin working with the connectors.
In the business park in which we were located was a facility for adults with severe intellectual or physical disabilities of the types mentioned in the linked article above. It was somewhat of an adult day care, but they tried to do things with their charges that would add some value to their lives.
Our company didn't have too many employees, and it seemed silly to have a fully trained and capable employee assigned to cutting open plastic baggies and separating components. Yes, they could do it quickly, but that work didn't add any value as part of our manufacturing process. One of the owners of our company knew the person in charge of the facility for the disabled, and they came up with what everyone thought was a great idea.
We determined how long it took for one of our employees to open and separate all the parts of a common connector we used. At our current per-hour labor rate, that gave us a dollar cost. The idea was that we'd take large numbers of these packaged connectors across the parking lot to the other facility, and we'd pay them to open and separate the parts. We paid them what it would cost us to have one of our own employees do the work, so there was no financial cost to us for doing this, and it gave the disabled adults a "real world job", so to speak. Sure, it might take them 4x as long, or longer, to do the task than it would take one of our own employees, but as long as we got the parts when we needed them, there was no issue. Each week we calculated what it would have cost us to do that work, and wrote a check to that facility for having done it for us. Each other Friday or so, the adults in that facility would take a "field trip", a short walk down to McDonalds, and the money we paid for their work would pay for their lunches.
Those adults, rather than being in day care all day every day, got to do a "job" that was important, and they got a sense of accomplishment and reward. Everyone needs to feel like they can contribute.
Fast forward to the summer of 1997. I was unemployed and looking for work. I had two interviews scheduled one day, one at a junior high school in the morning, and one with a snowshoe manufacturer in the afternoon. After meeting with the junior high principal I canceled the other interview (and the rest is history!), but that snowshoe manufacturer employed mostly adults with disabilities. Much like those at Howard Prep in the linked article above, those employees were paid a sub-minimum wage. They were not independent, could not live alone, and the jobs were as much for social connection and that feeling of contributing as they were for turning a small profit for the company.
Before she died, one of my aunts had a step-daughter with Down Syndrome. This cousin worked at Pride Industries, whose mission is to "create employment for people with disabilities". Again, the work was like that at Howard Prep.
California's minimum wage is now $15.50/hr. Economically-speaking, some people's labor isn't worth $15.50/hr. The National Council on Severe Autism, fought SB 639 precisely for this reason. All SB 639 will do is put disabled people out of work, taking away the dignity that they strive to earn. As I said, this just hurts my heart.