In Georgia, a Rare Bipartisan Push for Disability Rights

The Peach State might be the next to end subminimum wages for disabled workers. Will it set an example?

A row of disabled people packaging stuff in a sheltered workshop – they are wearing hair nets

Disabled people working in a sheltered workshop, where disabled workers are often paid less than minimum wageKim Weimer/Bucks County Courier Times/AP

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Georgia could become the next state to end the subminimum wage for disabled people, a widespread and now widely opposed exception to minimum wage laws that extends to some 40,000 workers with disabilities—and the first state where such an initiative would be led by Republicans. 16 states have passed bills to end or reform the practice; in its last legislative session, which ended in March, Georgia’s state House passed what may be the seventeenth. It’s a bill that legislators are likely to pick back up when the state’s next legislative session begins in January 2025.

Georgia’s politics are fractious, with attacks by state Republicans on LGBTQ+ rights and voting rights driving divisions with state Democrats. Georgia Republicans hold majorities in both the state Senate and House of Representatives. Yet the bill to end subminimum wage in Georgia isn’t completely partisan. The bill’s lead sponsor is GOP state Rep. Sharon Cooper, who said at a committee hearing that she “just couldn’t believe that we are still allowing” the subminimum wage. One Democratic representative is co-sponsoring the bill, and none opposed its passage through the state House.

By contrast, multiple attempts to appeal the subminimum wage law at the federal level have stalled, most recently in 2023. When the United States established a federal minimum wage in 1938, it made an exception for disabled workers, allowing employers to pay them less than minimum wage—some just 22 cents an hour—through a certificate system.  Many such certificate holders also operate sheltered workshops, effectively segregated workplaces that often exclusively hire disabled people earning subminimum wages, most with intellectual and developmental disabilities. There are currently just eight of these certificate holders in Georgia as of 2024, each employing as few as four to as many as 77 disabled workers.

“It frustrates me to see that a number of these sheltered workshops have executive directors or CEOs that make five-, six-figure salaries while paying people with disabilities pennies per hour,” said Dom Kelly, CEO of nonprofit New Disabled South, who also noted that the governmental entity Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities has led the charge in advocating for the change.

What makes the Georgia legislation different from other state bills, according to Julie Christensen, executive director of the Association of People Supporting Employment First, is its phase-out formula, which planned to get rid of 50 percent of certificates by the first anniversary of when the law is enacted, then all by the following year. That’s quicker than the three to five years Christensen said has been “typical” of such laws.

Disability rights used to be a bipartisan issue, with civil rights legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act signed into law by a Republican president. But this has changed, Christensen says, with disability rights policies now being viewed as a more progressive cause. 

“In the current climate, if you look at any of the legislation at the federal level, it is all almost all completely Democrat-led, and because of partisan politics, it’s been hard to get Republicans to engage,” Christensen said. But both Christensen and Kelly hope that Georgia’s example of a Republican-led state disability rights initiative could change the tune of other GOP politicians at both and federal levels. 

The loudest argument against subminimum wage, largely made by non-disabled people purportedly advocating on behalf of disabled people, is that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities just won’t get hired elsewhere. Christensen says it’s important for those proxy voices to keep in mind that subminimum wages weren’t originally meant for workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities—in fact, the policy was largely meant to support disabled war veterans.

“It was always intended to be a sort of low-risk way to get businesses to be willing to retrain people to reenter the workforce,” she said.

Disabled people across the United States are more likely to live in poverty than non-disabled people. In 2021, around a quarter of disabled Georgians between the ages of 18 and 64 lived below the poverty line. For disabled people who can work, a living wage is a step to address disabled poverty—but making a few dollars or even cents an hour is not. Being paid a subminimum wage, Kelly says, “hinders and prevents disabled people from having autonomy in their lives.”

Kelly also believes that living wages for disabled workers could positively impact the care economy, which is stretched very thin, by helping them afford to live and receive services in their community, “rather than an institutional setting.” It could also mean not having to “linger on a waiting list” for a paid caregiver, which could help parents and other unpaid carers in their lives.

In addition to subminimum wage repeals, a growing number of states have passed or are considering employment-first legislation, which—though the contents vary—is supposed to help disabled workers integrate into the workforce and secure services they need to succeed. Some states like Colorado have also recognized that “transportation is a barrier” for workers with disabilities, Christensen says, and are working to make sure these workers have the infrastructure they need to get to their jobs. 

But Georgia, which already passed an employment-first bill in 2018, needs “a reset on Employment First,” Kelly told me. Georgia made the state’s Vocational Rehabilitation Agency responsible for implementing the law; Kelly says the agency has “been an absolute abysmal failure to disabled people” that hasn’t “improved the realities for disabled employment.” 

A growing number of states, in addition to Georgia, have introduced bills to stop disabled workers from being paid less than others, including a New York state bill that recently got a stamp of approval from its senate labor committee. Illinois is also reviving its effort to pass a subminimum wage repeal—a first try in 2023 didn’t even get a vote, and Republican state senators are still vocally opposed.

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