As the nation recently celebrated the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., many of us reflected on his advocacy for workers’ rights. Workers with disabilities, especially here in Hawaii, are intimately aware of the continuing need for progress.

Here in Hawaii, the minimum wage does not apply to workers with disabilities, even though we have been asking for decades that we be included. I have personally been paid disability-based sub-minimum wages here in Hawaii, and I hope that our state legislature will move forward with ending the practice this year. Some other states already practice aloha for workers with disabilities by including them in the minimum wage: Alaska, Maryland, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

I have cerebral palsy, which means that my muscles do not work like those of the average person. My speech is affected, so some people judge me to be less intelligent. Some people have the patience to listen carefully when I talk so that they can understand me. The fact that I talk differently should not mean that my words are less important, especially when I am speaking up for my own equality.

For years, I worked in sub-minimum-wage sheltered workshops for the disabled here in Hawaii. I wanted to have a job just like anybody else, and I was told that they would hire me. Part of the problem with these workshops is that they take jobs that are at the intellectual level of an average middle school student and assume that those jobs are good for workers with disabilities.

Cars stream along South Beretania Street fronting the Capitol.

The author is looking to Hawaii leaders in the Capitol to end the practice of paying sub-minimum wages to the disabled.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Lanakila Pacific hired me to work in their custodial services program, where I stripped and waxed floors for $1.06 per hour. It was hard physical labor, but they paid me less because I had a disability, and our lawmakers believed that I deserved it.

When I worked at Goodwill, they paid me 65 cents per hour. I sorted and hung clothing, and I also used a box cutter to break down cardboard boxes. With either of these jobs, if I had no disability, they would not have been allowed to pay me these wages. Our lawmakers have the power to repeal the section of our state minimum wage law that allow this.

I would rather be unemployed than work all day for 65 cents per hour. I am looking for real work in my free time outside of my advocacy on this issue. Unfortunately, the existence of the sub-minimum wage system perpetuates low expectations for workers with disabilities, creating a barrier for us to enter competitive and integrated employment. Because our baseline is absolute zero cents per hour, we are often paid less than our able-bodied counterparts even in jobs that do not allow the payment of sub-minimum wages.

Breaking A Worker’s Spirit

In a recent letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation wrote, “CSAVR members stand united against sub-minimum wage, as well as segregated and sheltered employment that trivializes the worth of people with disabilities.” The National Disability Rights Network published “Beyond Segregated and Exploited,” describing sub-minimum-wage sheltered workshops and how their local affiliates around the nation are working to end the practice at the state level.

These work environments break the spirits of workers with disabilities and perpetuate the notion that we are not good enough to participate in the normal workforce. For now, workers with disabilities ask our governor and state Legislature to do their part to end this unfair labor practice in Hawaii. They can end the practice by striking the language in Section 387-9, Hawaii Revised Statutes, subsection (a). They can also withhold the state funds currently given to the workshops.

I would rather be unemployed than work all day for 65 cents per hour.

There is hope for workers with disabilities in Hawaii because there are some powerful leaders in our state who have demonstrated their support for the effort to end the payment of sub-minimum wages to workers with disabilities. Sen. Stanley Chang has continued to be a major champion, introducing Senate Bill 3023 in 2018 and another copy of it, Senate Bill 349, in 2019.

Rep. Amy Perruso has introduced House Bill 232 in 2019. Lt. Gov. Josh Green has advocated for this cause as a senator and LG candidate. Rep. Joy San Buenaventura, Roy Takumi, Aaron Johanson, John Mizuno and many others have also demonstrated their support. As the sub-minimum-wage workshops continue to advocate for their right to pay us pennies per hour, we continue to advocate for our right to be treated like everybody else.

Aggression has been shown toward those of us who speak up, even harassing our movement leaders in their workplaces. One of our advocates returned to his desk at work and found Pine-Sol in his coffee cup. The founding fathers of America wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” We pray that the leadership of the Aloha State will agree this year.

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