May 18, 2024

Eye On Illinois: Is there dignity in work done paying well below minimum wage?

What is the value of labor?

That question informs the debate over House Bill 793, a plan to phase out the subminimum wage for “14C Workshops,” the classification for job centers serving people with developmental disabilities.

State Rep. Theresa Mah, D-Chicago, sponsors the bill, the latest iteration in a six-year effort. She calls it the Dignity in Pay Act and is on record saying some workers earn as little as 50 cents an hour or $100 per month.

Opponents include state Rep. Charlie Meier, R-Okawville, who posted his thoughts Monday under the headline “Save the Jobs.” Calling HB 793 “well-intentioned, but badly flawed,” he said businesses partnering with such workshops would likely cut off that financial support rather than go along with the phased increase to the statewide minimum, which will be $15 on Jan. 1.

Meier said the current outlay for people working 10 hours per week is about $7.5 million, but Mah’s plan would result in them earning $27 million. For 25-hour workers, it would go from $19 million to $68.5 million. Those are steep increases, but they reflect the market minimum.

As usual, there is nuance in the middle. According to a Department of Human Services memo, the current version of HB 793 would allow employers to pay the reduced rates through June 30, 2029, create a transition grants program for 14C providers, bump the personal needs allowance for Community Integrated Living Arrangement residents from $60 per month to $100 as of Jan. 1 and compels the state to seek a federal waiver to increase payment rates for organizations providing employment programs for people with disabilities. DHS also pointed to Chicago’s supported employment model (workingtogetherchicago.org), a minimum-wage approach.

“14C clients and their families know that when they are performing their duties at the workshop that they are safe and cared for and that all of their medical and mental needs are being met,” Meier wrote, “The 14Cs provide the best of all worlds for clients, their families, companies and nonprofits.”

That arrangement also is well-intentioned, to use Meier’s phrase, but reformers raise their own compelling point: This labor must be essential to some entity, and if there’s a $69 million wage gap we could at least get a better accounting for who ultimately benefits. If the partnering businesses pull support from 14C workshops, will those tasks just disappear into the ether?

Any minimum wage conversation distills the reality of life at the lowest end of the earning scale, where survival requires either increased income or direct government assistance. That is especially true for people whose physical condition demands additional support.

Mah’s bill may die in the Rules Committee, but her passion for this cause is unlikely to waver.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Local News Network. Follow him on X @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.

Scott Holland

Scott T. Holland

Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.