Kansas’s Decision to Continue Paying Disabled People Subminimum Wages Frustrates Advocates

CW: Ableism

Kansas lawmakers are debating a bill that many disability rights advocates say will encourage employers to continue paying disabled workers less than the minimum wage, contradicting a nationwide trend.

A Kansas House bill would double the total allowed for a state income tax credit for products and services purchased by vendors employing disabled persons to $10 million per year.

Businesses currently qualify by paying at least the minimum wage to all disabled workers, but the legislation would allow sellers to pay some workers less if those individuals aren’t involved in purchases of products and services to receive the tax credit. Proponents contend that by allowing more vendors to participate, the law will increase the number of options for disabled people to obtain employment and vocational training.

The Kansas issue comes as employers around the country have begun to pay at least the federal hourly minimum wage of $7.25. According to a January report to Congress from the United States Government Accountability Office, around 122,000 disabled workers received less in 2019, compared to approximately 295,000 in 2010. Critics argue that jobs paying less than the minimum wage exploit employees.

30-year-old Trey Lockwood who is autistic works three part-time jobs, one of which is at The Golden Scoop, an ice cream parlor. He is paid more than minimum wage by his employers. He enjoys greeting the customers and making ice cream. Lockwood enjoys earning his own money and spending it when he wants to. His mother Michele says jobs paying subminimum wages don’t foster independence.

However, other proponents and program administrators who have been questioned about their compensation have stated that the severity of some disabilities means that such programs cannot be eliminated without depriving people of meaningful opportunities.

Rep. Sean Tarwater of Kansas testified last month in opposition to a proposal to prohibit tax credits for sheltered workshops that employ individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and pay less than the minimum wage. He explained why he thought the workshops were critical. Sheltered workshops, according to Tarwarter, serve disabled people who are unable to work at minimum wage or higher. The Kansans who attend these programs have developmental disabilities and are “people who really can’t do anything,” Tarwater said. “If you do away with programs like that, they will rot at home,” he argued at a hearing on Valentine’s Day.

People working in sheltered workshops make an average of $3.34 per hour. Subminimum wage is perfectly legal because, under US labor law, certain disabled people have been allowed to be paid less than the minimum wage since 1938. This law was adopted during the Great Depression to encourage more people to find employment.

A disability doesn’t mean someone can’t enjoy life and be a valuable part of their community. Disabled should be paid a fair wage for their work. Data show that we are conscientious, creative, and dependable at work. Everyone should be paid fairly, regardless of disability.


All in: Easterseals Plan for Disability Equity.” Easterseals, Easterseals, https://www.easterseals.com/our-programs/employment-training/all-in/.

Bernard, Katie. “JoCo Republican Doubles down as Disability Rights Groups Seek Apology for ‘Hurtful’ Comments .” The Kansas City Star, The McClatchy Company, 16 Feb. 2023, https://www.kansascity.com/news/politics-government/article272529740.html.

Hanna, John. “Kansas Plan Keeping Low Wages for Disabled Workers Angers Advocates.” AP NEWS, Associated Press, 6 Mar. 2023, https://apnews.com/article/disabled-workers-minimum-wage-kansas-bill-7da19222ffb9036e668e8a273f016bae.

Selyukh, Alina. “Workers with Disabilities Can Earn JUST $3.34 an HOUR. Agency Says Law Needs Change.” NPR, NPR, 17 Sept. 2020, http://www.npr.org/2020/09/17/912840482/u-s-agency-urges-end-to-below-minimum-wage-for-workers-with-disabilities.

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