Advocates against subminimum wage gain traction in Reno

By: - January 11, 2019 5:56 am
worker at Opportunity Village

A worker at Opportunity Village, one of the eight companies in Nevada authorized to pay intellectually disabled people less than the federal minimum wage.

Disability advocates in Nevada celebrated a largely symbolic victory this week as the Reno City Council unanimously passed a resolution to bar the use of subminimum wage within city contracts.

The Fair Labor Standards Act allows for authorized employers to pay intellectually disabled people less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, in the name of job training. These workers are paid based off their production compared to a worker without a disability. The subminimum wage issue has divided disability advocates, some of whom believe it’s an outdated practice that traps the intellectually disabled into sheltered workshops, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and paid only negligible wages that could be less than a dollar an hour.

No current City of Reno employees or contractors are making below minimum wage, however advocates framed removing the option outright as an important step toward inclusion and equality.

According to a memo from Reno Assistant City Manager Bill Thomas, the city works with only one contractor — HSI, which provides cleaning services — that has the option to pay subminimum wage rates, but employees working in those positions already receive above minimum wage.

“They still had that leeway,” said Erik Jimenez, the disability advocate who spearheaded the effort as chair of the Reno Access Advisory Committee. “We wanted to stop that.”

Jimenez told councilmembers that while Reno does not have any subminimum wage contracts, other cities in Nevada do. Passing the resolution encourages those municipalities to begin having conversations about subminimum wage and encourages state lawmakers to take legislative action during the upcoming session.

“This is a good start,” said Councilwoman Jenny Brekhus, “an opportunity for Reno to show state leadership.”

Jimenez believes the Reno resolution is the first of its kind passed by a city; however Alaska, Maryland and New Hampshire have all banned subminimum wage at the state level. Efforts to replace sheltered workshops with more inclusive job programs within the wider workforce are afoot across the nation.

Jimenez says West Wendover is already considering passing a similar resolution.

Assemblyman Richard Carrillo, D-Las Vegas, has submitted a bill draft request related to state subminimum wage policies. Insight is being incorporated from several national groups, including the National Council on the Disabled, the National Federation of the Blind and the National Down Syndrome Society. Provisions being floated for Carrillo’s proposal include creating a “wage floor” or minimum subminimum wage, requiring reports detailing individualized plans for how to get subminimum wage employees to competitive market wages, and phasing out the practice completely over time.

Eight companies or organizations within Nevada are certified to pay subminimum wage. Opportunity Village in Southern Nevada is the largest, with 480 people receiving subminimum wage. Transition Services, also based in Southern Nevada, is the second largest with 357 people receiving subminimum wage. The other six entities with certifications have a combined total of 265 people making subminimum wages. Those organizations are Alpha Productions Technology in Sparks, Easter Seals Nevada in North Las Vegas, HSI in Reno, Ormsby Industries in Carson City, Ruby Mountain Resource Center in Elko and United Cerebral Palsy of Nevada in Reno.

That is a total of 1,102 people across Nevada who are making subminimum wage. Nationally, there are more than 150,000 people with disabilities making less than minimum wage.

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April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus

April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and two mutts.