Wages the wrong focus in effort to help disabled

The following op-ed appeared in the Prosser Record-Bulletin and Dayton Chronicle during the week of April 22.

By Sen. Maureen Walsh

One of the biggest challenges we face in Olympia, when we try to fix something, is to make sure we don’t make things worse. You’d be surprised how often that happens. It very nearly happened last week, with our state’s thousands of developmentally disabled adults.

As things stand right now, we do a pretty poor job of meeting the needs of our state’s DD population. We rank 41st nationally in the resources we put toward those with developmental disabilities. Mostly what we do is steer adults age 21 and older into employment programs. These jobs are terrific for those who can get them and keep them. But opportunities are limited, and there are many for whom employment is not a realistic option. We make everyone wait nine months for job placements that often never come, before we finally allow them to enter programs that might be better suited to their needs. The result is that many simply wind up on the sofa watching television, and more than 10,000 disabled adults go entirely unserved.

This is a terrible situation, and it is one the Legislature needs to address. But what we very nearly did this session was even worse.

A bill this year was aimed at one small piece of the puzzle – the wages paid to the 7,000 or so that are working at any given time. House Bill 1706 would have eliminated the option for all employers, public and private, to pay less than the minimum wage. In our hearings, a parade of activists and parents called a sub-minimum wage unjust and demeaning.

I get that. But just think what would happen if suddenly everyone who employs the developmentally disabled suddenly had to pay the minimum wage. The jobs would dry up.

These jobs aren’t cheap or easy to provide. Sometimes they require job coaches and support staff. Some vendors and private employers pay the full minimum wage. But there are 360 others who hold certificates allowing them to pay less. We can assume there is a financial reason, and we should be grateful they participate at all.

If we want more opportunities for our disabled adults, does it make sense for us to make it more expensive for employers to participate? For every parent urging higher wages, there were three or four more who came before us distraught at the idea their children might be bounced out of a job.

They told us employment gives their adult children structure and purpose, a chance to socialize and get out of the house. One parent told us the sub-minimum wage means nothing to his son: “It could be a dollar or a hundred dollars – it makes no difference to him.”

What happened when this bill came to the Senate floor was one of those classic sausage-making fests you often hear about in the legislative arena. We held up action on the bill for several days while I worked with my colleagues on an amendment limiting the bill to jobs provided directly by the state, affecting 183 positions. The bill passed the Senate Wednesday and returns to the House.

I agree with the principle. Eliminating the sub-minimum wage is the right thing to do, but it should be in the context of a larger overhaul of our DD programs. We should remember that under federal law, every DD client in the state is entitled to institutionalization, which can cost the state upwards of $200,000 a year. We are fortunate that so many parents have rejected that idea and have opted to care for their children at home – and have let the state skate on its responsibilities. When we fix this problem, we need to make sure we don’t do it by hurting families and the people we are trying to help.