On February 2, 2016 Judge Steven Bell’s decision and order were made public regarding fair wages for three individuals with disabilities in Tiffin, Ohio. With Ohio’s Employment First Initiative off and running, the news of this case should be affirming to the fact that individuals with disabilities deserve fair wages. Let’s take a look at the history and ultimately the final outcome of this case.
As many readers are aware, most County Boards of Developmental Disabilities continue to run sheltered workshops for individuals with disabilities in their county of residence. Generally if there is ‘work’ available it is through a contract with a local company and more often then not it is ‘piece rate’ and paid through their certificate with the Department of Labor for Subminimum Wage. The law states the exemption
does not apply unless the disability actually impairs the worker’s earning or productive capacity for the work being performed. The fact that a worker may have a disability is not in and of itself sufficient to warrant the payment of a subminimum wage.
On some occasions individuals will produce quantities high enough to make or exceed minimum wage, but more often times than not, they don’t. This results in individuals making well below the minimum wage per hour standard. The prior belief that has come under much scrutiny is that the individual(s) are too impaired and need too much assistance to make the standard wage. This is where Disability Rights Ohio (DRO) comes in.
Disability Rights Ohio is a non-profit corporation who’s mission is to
advocate for the human, civil and legal rights of people with disabilities in Ohio.
DRO provides legal assistance and rights advocacy to individuals in Ohio. These issues can range from abuse, misappropriation to discrimination and employment. It is governed by a board of directors which consists primarily of individuals with disabilities and family members of people with disabilities. To obtain more information or to review their current priorities visit their website.
On November 17, 2015 the DRO submitted a ‘Petition for Review of Wages’ for three individuals receiving services through Seneca County Board of Developmental Disabilities and who are employed at the County ran, Seneca Re-Ad Industries, Fostoria facility. The DRO was petitioning for the wage review, stating that the wages that had been paid were not in line with the individuals level of productivity. All three individuals listed in this case have some sort of disability and have received vocational services through Re-Ad Industries for between 4-6 years. Generally they were receiving about $3/hour on the production line, with Ohio’s minimum wage currently at $8.10/hour. The three individuals were seeking minimum wage back pay for the past three years.
Ms. Corner, DRO Lead Attorney, stated to the Toledo Blade that the individuals productivity was not accurately tested and often times they had to wait for others to complete tasks ahead of them, ultimately slowing down their speed. An individual listed in the case, Mr. Magers, stated that he had a hard time getting clear answers as to how his rate of pay was determined and
They have to protect the myth that you’re only worth a few dollars an hour on that line
Testimony for the hearing began January 4, 2016 at the Seneca County Court of Common Pleas with Judge Steven Bell presiding over the case. The Judge heard from each individual listed in the case as well as representatives from DRO, Seneca County Board of Developmental Disabilities Administration and employees at Re-Ad Industries. Understandably all three individuals productivity was under scrutiny throughout the case. After hearing from various Re-Ad, Fostoria facility personnel regarding this matter, the Judge states in his final decision and order
I find the foregoing observations to be of little to no help when I am deciding whether Petitioners are disabled for the work performed at Fostoria…
Instead, it seemed as though a scripted narrative was being played out…
I conclude Respondent has failed to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that the wages actually paid to Petitioners during the relevant period have been properly calculated…
There is no question here that Respondent willfully did not pay minimum wage to the Petitioners
In the court document and with testimony, the Judge discusses the ‘special relationship held with the individuals, as both employee and client, to the Seneca County Board of DD. The Judge goes on to state that the primary role is to provide rehabilitative services. He then concludes by saying,
In the discharge of its overarching responsibility to provide services, Respondent willfully makes many workplace choices which dramatically suppress the ability of the Petitioners to earn wages
The Judge, in his statement, is referring to a line questioning during the trial, regarding how the program operates, how work is made available, and activity/break/lunch time. These were considered allotments of time that people are not offered the ability to earn a wage and, unfortunately, is considered the standard of how most sheltered workshops operate.
Final Outcome: Wages and Backpay
Judge Steven Bell awarded all three individuals minimum wage back pay for three years along with ‘Liquidated Damages’ for the same amount of time. In other words, back pay – doubled. Overall this is approximately $54,000 worth of wages required to be paid within 30 days of the decision. The Judge states that Seneca Re-Ad Industries, Fostoria facility failed to meet the burden of proof regarding how wages were determined.
In my professional opinion I believe this case is paramount in the pursuit for equal pay and equal employment opportunities among individuals with disabilities. A new era is right before us, no longer should a four-walled ‘facility’ be the natural ‘work-place’ for an individual with a disability. I would not be surprised if similar cases pop up in the future. Let’s make Ohio a better place and pursue equality.