BREESE, Ill. – FOX 2 received an exclusive look at growing tensions over the issue of fair pay for disabled workers.
Illinois House Bill 793, the Dignity in Pay Act, would require all workers to be paid the state minimum wage.
The close to 70 developmentally disabled workers at the not-for-profit Community Link in Breese, Illinois, and their loved ones are actually against the proposal.
Hourly wages at Community Link can range from $3 to $4 an hour to more than $16 an hour (well above the current state minimum wage of $13). The overall average comes out to about $6.
“I like working with people—the people around us,” long-time worker David Richards said.
“To lose this sense of productivity and this sense of pride, it would just be a crime,” said Rita Winkeler, whose brother, Mark, is also a long-time worker and lifelong friend of David’s.
Still, demonstrators gathered at the state capitol in Springfield, Illinois, last week in support of Chicago State Rep. Theresa Mah’s HB 793.
The workers in Breese currently qualify for a federal 14(c) wage exemption. They are paid for the work they complete in five hours, be it 20 clamps or 1,000. The workers, their loved ones, and the Community Link staff, along with State Rep. Katie Stuart of Edwardsville and State Rep. Charlie Meier of Highland, fear employers will simply not hire less productive workers for the minimum wage. Those workers are currently thriving with every paycheck, big or small.
“(My brother) always tells my husband, ‘I go to work, just like you.’ He bought a lunch box like my husband’s because he said, ‘That’s what people do. We work,’” Winkeler said.
She applauded companies like Eaton/B-Line of Highland, which contracts with Community Link for work. She suspects the company could complete such work more efficiently elsewhere and says workers like her brother are certainly not being exploited.
Community Link Executive Director John Huelskamp agrees.
“The companies that bring the work here—that gap between minimum wage and sub-minimum wage—if that’s not subsidized, then there could be a gap in services, where we have to tell these guys you can’t work right now,” he said.
He calls the bill well-intentioned but says it overlooks the cases of people for whom having a place to work is more important than pay, for whom a minimum wage requirement could mean no work at all.
Rep. Meier said other workplaces for the disabled have already opted for the minimum wage standard in expectation of the passage of HB 793, which, if passed, would phase out 14 ( c ) exemptions by 2027. The result has been the elimination of 50% to 70% of the jobs, he said.
The impact falls the heaviest on developmentally disabled workers with behavioral issues, who most employers would never hire.
“If we go up to minimum wage, there will be less workers here. Adult daycares cost about $1,800 a month, and they don’t get the dignity of working,” Rep. Meier said. “They’re happy working here. You don’t find anybody who’s not happy while they’re doing this. It’s their choice. It’s their family’s choice.”
The bill calls for state grants to subsidize employers for hiring less productive workers but that process is likely to be time-consuming and unreliable, according to Meier.
“They’re trying to fix something that isn’t broken,” he said.
Reps. Meier and Stuart joined a group worker at the state capitol in opposition to the bill which failed to pass by a single vote last session and is likely to be brought back in the next.