Braille Monitor                                                                  March 1985

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Minimum Wage in Washington: The Old Battle Takes a New Look

(Note: Reprinted from the Winter, 1985, edition of the Blind Washingtonian, the official publication of the National Federation of the Blind of Washington.)

It was 1980 when the NFBW first took to the State Legislature a draft law which made it unlawful for employers to pay subminimum wages solely because the employee was blind. Under pressure from various forces throughout the state, the bill died in the House Labor Committee.

Like proposed NFB of Washington legislation that would repeal the statute giving the blind free fishing licenses, the minimum wage bill proved too sensitive a bill for legislators to handle. Nobody wanted to support a bill that would "take something away" from the handicapped. Although it is not philosophically sound to give token freebies like fishing licenses to blind persons, the solons didn't want to look like "heavies." Therefore, the bill died.

There are two ways to approach any state law, however. If you can't kill it outright, you can make it administratively ineffective by "regulating it to death." That is the tactic now being used by NFB of Washington.

"I have drafted new regulations interpreting and implementing the state law," said NFB of Washington Past President Scott Lewis. "President Mackenstadt, Ben Prows, and others will soon petition the Department of Labor and Industries for a hearing on the new regulations and will, if necessary, take the state to court to get a public hearing and implementation of the new regulations."

The proposed regulations make it more difficult for a sheltered shop operator to prove that a worker does not deserve minimum wage or better. Although the regulations don't address blindness specifically, they would stop many of the abuses made possible by the current system.

The proposed regulations would, among other things, require that an employer must be training a worker for competitive employment in order to qualify for a limited subminimum wage certificate. "A license to pay less than the minimum wage is a license to steal," Lewis said. "We may not be able to revoke all these licenses, but we can increase the cost of slave labor."

"Currently, the state requires little more than an allegation that a worker's opportunities for employment are curtailed before it grants a subminimum wage certificate. And," Lewis adds, "the state's enforcement officials don't police the sheltered shops enough to track down the abuses."