SB2042 set for governor’s signature; could have unintended consequences for disabled workers

Bill would stop employers from paying disabled workers less than minimum wage; critics say it may stop employers from hiring disabled workers

CHATTANOOGA (WDEF) – The fight for minimum wage or better isn’t just for fast food workers and the like.

It’s also for workers with developmental or intellectual disabilities, and the state legislature wants to make it a reality.

Senate Bill 2042 would stop employers from paying employees with developmental or intellectual disabilities less than minimum wage.

Some critics say it might force employers to stop paying those workers at all.

Workers with special needs are everywhere. Your grocery stores. Your coffee shops. But Tennessee has a law from the 1930’s that allows employers to pay them less than minimum wage.

State Senator Jeff Yarbro from Nashville learned of this from one of his interns, and vowed to fight to change that.

“It’s just sort of morally repugnant to me that we would be having workers work full-time and get paid pennies on the dollar. Just getting paid less than minimum wage…that’s just not right,” Yarbro says.

Leaders at Orange Grove Center here in Chattanooga agree with that sentiment. But they also understand employers may decide to stop paying full-time wages for workers that can’t do full-time work. In the era of inclusion, Orange Grove’s Director of Development Heidi Hoffecker says having a job that pays less is better than nothing.

“People with disabilities are not meant to be sequestered. We all need to get on the bandwagon and figure out how to make it work for all comers.”

Yarbro: “They can still do a really effective job. Can still really improve the business’ bottom line, can improve morale and it’s not something that costs. It actually leads to better economic outcomes for consumers and employers alike.”

The bill passed unanimously through the House and 27 to 3 in the Senate. The Tennessee Equality Project says good intentions also need good execution so that it can work for everyone.

Dahron Johnson, a trans athlete who works for the Tennessee Equality Project, has an autistic son and wants to see him have a meaningful future. “The urge to support is good, but let’s always make sure that we’re doing it in collaboration with whatever community it is that one is trying to help move forward because they may have the lived experience of just what barriers are already in place.”

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee has not yet signed Senate Bill 2042. When he does, it will go into effect July 1st.

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