Governor Newsom Signs Senator Durazo’s Bill SB 639 to Prohibit Paying Workers With Disabilities Less than the California Minimum Wage

Monday, September 27, 2021

Governor Newsom has signed State Senator María Elena Durazo’s (D-Los Angeles) SB 639 into law, which will phase out the use of the federal 14(c) certificate in California, and ultimately prohibit paying workers with disabilities less than the California minimum wage and transition workers with disabilities to competitive, integrated employment. California joins Alaska, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oregon, and Texas, in outlawing paying workers with disabilities a subminimum wage. The bill is sponsored by Disability Rights California, the State Council on Developmental Disabilities, and Legal Aid at Work.

“California is ending the subminimum wage for people with disabilities,” said Senator Durazo. “All work should be treated with dignity, and that means that nobody is paid less than the minimum wage. SB 639 develops a phaseout plan to ensure a path to competitive, integrated employment for these workers. I applaud Governor Newsom for recognizing the injustice that workers with disabilities are facing and remedying this clear violation of their civil rights.”

Since 1938, Section 214 (c)(1)(A) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) has given California employers the ability to apply for a certificate that allows them to pay employees with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. This FLSA 14(c) certificate was intended to provide opportunities for employment for World War I veterans with disabilities, but instead created segregated workplaces, and the unemployment rate of persons with disabilities is twice as high as other workers.

What has actually materialized under FLSA is a pool of highly exploited labor. Over 5,000 Californians with disabilities are currently working in sheltered workshops and are being paid as little as 2 dollars per hour. 

Sheltered workshops were originally developed to provide employment opportunities for disabled World War I veterans returning from service. Since then, sheltered workshops have morphed into full-scale operations to primarily employ persons with intellectual or developmental disabilities in segregated settings. Beyond the FLSA, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 made it illegal for employers to discriminate against workers who had disabilities. Yet, sheltered workshops remain in operation and the economic opportunities for people with disabilities continue to erode. SB 639 phases out sheltered workshops, develops a path to integrated employment, and ensures workers with disabilities earn no less than the California minimum wage.

“Today was a great day for Californians with disabilities who want to work in the competitive labor market,” said Andy Imparato, executive director of Disability Rights California. “By ending the discriminatory practice of paying people with disabilities less than the federally-protected minimum wage, Governor Newsom has helped California reassert its role as a national leader in disability rights and worker rights.”

“About 100 years ago, it was seen as compassionate to pay less to people with disabilities,” said Aaron Carruthers, executive director of the State Council on Developmental Disabilities. “But times changed, views of what is possible for people with disabilities changed, and options changed. With the Governor’s signature, people who were once trapped in sheltered workshops will now be able to design a truly meaningful day. This is the dignity the Governor spoke about when signing the bill.”

“Legal Aid at Work is proud to co-sponsor SB 639, a bill to ensure that working Californians with disabilities earn fair and equitable wages," said Joan Graff, president of Legal Aid at Work. "SB 639 will remedy a glaring civil rights wrong that has been ignored for far too long.”

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