Movement to eliminate subminimum wages is sometimes misunderstood 

by Jillian Nelson and Andrea Zuber, co-Chairs of the Minnesota Task Force on Eliminating Subminimum Wages 

The recent commentary headlined, “Limiting work options for people with disabilities raises equity issues” perpetuates widespread misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the work of the Minnesota Task Force on Eliminating Subminimum Wage.  

Parent Jean Bender writes, “My son, David, fits the profile of someone who would be funneled into subminimum wage. Instead, he has an individualized program designed to build skills and support community integration. I support eliminating subminimum wage, not to limit choices, but because there are better options for my son and his peers. We can’t seem to discuss those options because those fighting to preserve the outdated subminimum wage programs won’t have the conversation.” 

There is a growing movement across the country to end subminimum wages for people with disabilities. Almost 15 states have already ended subminimum wage work, or have plans to do so. 

To make sure Minnesota is prepared if this happens, the legislature set up the Task Force on Eliminating Subminimum Wages in 2021. Self-advocates – including those who were earning subminimum wage – led the 2021 legislation because they believe phasing out subminimum wage, segregated employment, and other employment-related policies that discriminate against people with disabilities will help advance equity, drive social change, and protect human rights. 

People with disabilities, the parent of a child with disabilities, service providers and people who work for government agencies are all serving on the task force and working together. 

The task force is not making recommendations on whether Minnesota should end the use of subminimum wages, but working to ensure a smooth transition if subminimum wages are phased out by state or federal policy changes. As part of the task force member solicitation process, applicants acknowledged they understand and agree to support the work of the task force – which is to put together a plan to end subminimum wage, if legislation is passed mandating the end of it. They were not required to be committed to ending subminimum wage. 

While the task force was given a clear charge by the legislature that did not include debating the value of subminimum wage, the plan the task force is creating can help support healthy debate at the legislature, and in other forums. 

The task force’s purpose is to support people with disabilities, especially those with concerns about what a phase-out would mean for them.  

The task force is conducting extensive engagement and outreach, seeking input especially from those who have disabilities, their families, and trusted supporters. The engagement plan summary shows how the task force is reaching out to people who would be affected if subminimum wage is phased out. A survey was completed in August. 

The work of the task force is crucial in helping ensure more people have access to jobs that build on their skills, support personal wellbeing and increase economic growth. That work must be strategic and thoughtful so people in our community – especially those with the most significant support needs – are not left behind. With the right plan and approach, we can ensure that people with disabilities who want to work can work, and that people have meaningful ways to spend their time. 

Parent Larissa Beck writes, “One of the most important things to my son, who has an intellectual and developmental disability, is that everything be fair and equitable. As his mom, I can’t imagine trying to explain how having a disability makes it ‘ok’ for him to be paid less than minimum wage  To him, that would mean that he is less than the minimum, and less than human, which is not fair nor equitable. As his mom, I will always advocate for him to be fully included in all aspects of his life. I want everyone, including my son, to have a fair chance and I hope that with the work of the task force, we can come up with a good plan to do it well.” 

The work currently being done will ensure people with disabilities always have the meaningful services and support they need to have belonging, justice, freedom, and citizenship in their communities.  

Find more information about the task force on the Minnesota Department of Human Services website, at https://mn.gov/dhs/partners-and-providers/news-initiatives-reports-workgroups/long-term-services-and-supports/task-force-on-eliminating-subminimum-wages/.