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John Batchelor

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Rantz: The latest heartless, harmful Seattle policy fight

File photo. (AP Photo/Maria Antipina)

City officials are aiming to eliminate some companies the ability to offer people living with disabilities with sub-minimum wages. Consequently, people with disabilities will lose hours or even jobs.

Right now, the City of Seattle offers certificates to certain companies that employ workers whose disabilities seriously impact their productivity. The Seattle Times explains:

Productivity is often measured in a “time/motion study” of how much a worker can accomplish during one hour of work. For example, if an average worker loads 100 boxes in an hour, but the worker being tested loads 15, that worker could be assigned a wage that is 15 percent of the average worker’s, or $2.25 an hour, rather than Seattle’s $15 minimum wage.

But now, according to the Times, Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, Mayor Ed Murray, and Office of Labor Standards Director Dylan Orr would like to do away with these certificates, moved by the claim it’s discriminatory by the Seattle Commission for People with disAbilities.

This is nothing but feel-good virtue signaling by politicians exploiting workers with disabilities so they can tell the world how they champion disadvantaged groups. Herbold and Murray can proudly proclaim they care about people living with disabilities by saying they should be paid just as much as able-bodied people. But the truth is the workers will be hurt here.

Depending on your disability and the job, your disability puts you at a remarkable disadvantage when looking for work. That’s not due to heartlessness or second-class citizen status; it’s a reality that there’s a job that needs to be done and there will likely be someone without a disability able to do it better.

Using the Times example above, why would any company hire a disabled worker who can stack 15 boxes an hour for $15 an hour when they could hire an able-bodied worker who can stack 100 boxes an hour for the exact same rate? Even at City Hall, where Herbold and Murray can spend other people’s money without worrying about the cost to the bottom line, they aren’t hiring scored of disabled workers if it will seriously impact their productivity or efficiency.

Let’s stop pretending these workers are being exploited by greedy businesses paying disabled workers little for a ton of tremendous work. They’re paying people little for less work, but contributing to the worker’s lives in a more meaningful way. By taking away these certificates, you’re going to hurt someone living, for example, with a developmental disability that gains self-esteem and job training at a job they might otherwise not get. Beyond that, as the Times points out through the legal guardian of a man living with Down syndrome, these jobs also allow for the workers to “make friends, socialize with the other workers…” and become “…productive members of society.”

Clearly, not everyone with disabilities will be an inefficient worker. But they will usually be perceived that way. The certificate to pay sub-minimum wage requires the company to study their productivity. If the person with a disability does as good as job – or better – than an able-bodied worker, they’ll actually earn the minimum wage (or more) for the job. This gets them in the door when they otherwise might not. That’s how cultural change can happen.

If the city moves forward with this plan, it will have long term negative consequences. No, most disabled workers currently employed will not lose their jobs, though maybe some of their hours. Firing disabled employees after this change would create a PR nightmare. But they’re making it so that the next time they’re hiring, that company won’t be as willing (or financially able) to give someone with a disability a chance.

All the while, Herbold and Murray will be able to say they care about the disabled … by killing the certificate that will render these workers even more disadvantaged on the job market. It’s heartless. But good news for Herbold: when she runs for re-election, she can disingenuously claim on her campaign website that she’s a champion for people living with disabilities.

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