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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Measure Would Require Boost In Pay For Some Disabled Workers

Chris Lehman
Northwest News Network
Workers with All Seasons Grounds Care at the City of McMinnville Water Reclamation Facility.

As Northwest states debate whether to raise the minimum wage as high as $15 per hour, some adults with developmental disabilities continue to be paid as little as 25 cents per hour.

And they're getting paid with taxpayer dollars.

Salem-based Shangri-La Corporation is a non-profit that helps people with disabilities develop job skills and find housing. It runs a grounds care service called All Seasons Grounds Care.

Like her colleagues, All Seasons employee Debra Wood has intellectual disabilities. And like all of the All Seasons employees I spoke with outside the City of McMinnville Water Reclamation Facility, she loves her job.

"We mow and blow and pull weeds and rake leaves and do litter control,” Wood said. “I pick up the pruning and they use the weed eater."

And like many of the others on the grounds crew, Wood gets paid less than minimum wage.

Shangri-La's employment services director, Teri Marsh, said the goal is for grounds crew employees to gain enough work experience that they can go on to another job with better pay.

"It happens fairly frequently,” she said.

But while they're at Shangri-La, many of them work for less than $6 per hour. That's well below the Oregon minimum wage of $9.25. That's allowed by an exception to both federal and state minimum wage law. Marsh said it allows lower pay for disabled workers who can't perform at 100 percent productivity levels, as judged by industry standards.

"For our crew here, the average productivity I think is around 40, 45 percent,” she said. “So we have some people who make minimum wage, and we have some people who make less.”

‘Fair wages are important to everyone’

Shangri-La's contract with the City of McMinnville comes under a state program designed to steer certain government-paid work towards people with disabilities. It's not a large program. There are about 500 workers statewide who are paid sub-minimum wage through contracts from state and local agencies. Some make safety vests for ODOT. Others shred paper or sort mail.

But Democratic State Senator Sara Gelser thinks nobody should be paid under the minimum wage, especially when taxpayers are footing the bill.

"We're having a conversation about raising the minimum wage and talking about how fair wages are important to everyone,” Gelser said. “People with disabilities are Oregonians too and we absolutely can't leave them behind."

Gelser's bill would require non-profits that use disabled workers under government contracts to pay those workers at least minimum wage. But Gelser realizes that places like Shangri-La might not be able to foot the bill. So her measure would require the government agencies that pay for the contracts to also pay the higher wage.

"So it really is that legislature or the public body that is taking on that increased cost,” Gelser said. “We're not asking the non-profits to go out and raise a bunch of extra money.”

Higher wages, fewer jobs?

She said there's no reason why any disabled worker would lose their job as a result of the measure. But Marsh isn't convinced.

"While I believe that our public agencies believe in employment for all people, everybody's fighting for money right now,” she said.

And Marsh said it's ultimately a trade-off. The lower wage allows Shangri-La to take on more workers. There are about two dozen on the job in McMinnville.

But the low wage also means less money in the pockets of people like David Kent. He's been working for All Seasons Grounds Care for almost eight years. And he watches his money carefully.

"To save up for me and my spouse to do something together,”Kent said.

He wants to take his wife on vacation.

"Probably to the coast for a day or something,” he added.

But even if the measure does pass, it could be a few years before Kent sees a bigger paycheck. That's because existing contracts would be grandfathered in under the current law.