Wages grew in Montana during the pandemic, but a group of workers in the state — and across the country — are still being paid below minimum wage.
A decades-old federal law allows businesses to legally pay people with disabilities below the federal minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour. There are 16 businesses in Montana — including one in Bozeman — that pay below minimum wage, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor.
That standard could change.
Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines introduced a billon Thursday that would phase out a certificate program created by the Fair Labor Standards Act, enacted in 1938, that allows businesses to pay people with disabilities below the minimum wage. Roughly 100,000 people with disabilities across the U.S. are affected by the certificate program, according to Daines’ office.
The Transformation to Competitive Integrated Employment Act could phase the certificate program out over the next five years, and, in return, provide businesses that use the program with grants to boost the pay of people with disabilities.
“There is dignity and hope in work, so we should be doing all we can to support Montanans with disabilities in the workforce, not treat them unfairly. Montanans with disabilities should never be paid below the minimum wage,” Daines said in a release.
Reach, a nonprofit that provides services to people with disabilities like training to enter the workforce and housing, has 59 workers paid below the minimum wage, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, the agency that provides the certificates.
Dee Metrick, Reach’s executive director, said that she wishes she could get rid of the program, and had planned to do so when she became executive director last year. But then the pandemic hit, and a nonprofit that relies on workers to help teach people with disabilities job skills to use in employment opportunities in Bozeman suddenly began hemorrhaging staff.
Metrick said that Reach has 36 job openings.
Staff at the nonprofit are like job coaches and caregivers wrapped into one, with the ultimate goal of getting a person with disabilities into the workforce based on their chosen path.
Metrick said that 92% of the 90 people that they serve are in the workforce, earning minimum wage or higher, depending on where they work.
But for some, getting into the workforce is nearly impossible. Metrick said that the issues for people with severe disabilities, like those confined to a wheelchair and who are nonverbal, and who require accommodations like accessible bathrooms, are left out by a system not designed for them.
“The problem is, even when there’s a 92% community employment rate, those 8% who struggle to get employment are still important people who want to come to work — they have value,” Metrick said.
Those who can’t find a job that accommodates their needs find work in Reach’s work center, where the below minimum wage pay kicks in. Reach contracts with companies that provide work for people with disabilities.
However, that pay is subject to fluctuation, based on the production of a person with a disability.
Bernie Franks-Ongoy, the executive director of Disability Rights Montana, said that a wage for a person with disabilities can change depending on how fast they can accomplish work in comparison to a person without disabilities.
The faster a person with a disability gets something done, like sorting nuts and bolts, the more they get paid.
Franks-Ongoy said that when the certificate program began in 1938, the intentions might have come from a good place. However, as time has gone on, the system has become antiquated. She said that companies don’t have an incentive to pay people with disabilities minimum wage or higher.
Paying a person with a disability less than minimum wage in Montana is legal, according to state law. Seven states — Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska, Texas, Maryland and New Hampshire — have made the move to get rid of the law. An attempt to get rid of the law in Montana was made in 2019, but it failed.
Metrick said that one of her concerns with that failed attempt was that it seemed like the proposed legislation at the state level would just wipe the law from the books but not provide financial help to businesses that use the certificate program to get workers paid at or above minimum wage.
Daines’ proposed bill could provide grants to those businesses and allot roughly $200 million over five years to fund those grants, according to the senator’s office.
“Until we pay them fair wages, all that it is, is exploitation,” Franks-Ongoy said.