But the ban for businesses wouldn’t kick in until August 2024. The three-year delay is intended to provide time to phase out the federally allowed exception without causing harm to the very people the bill seeks to help, and to reverse course if data indicates there will be unintended consequences.
The bill now heads to the House.
Advocates for people with special needs pushed the measure as closing a discriminatory loophole in federal labor law that dates to 1938, decades before other laws added protections and opportunities for them.
“I believe it’s a civil rights violation,” said its sponsor, Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, chairwoman of the Family and Veterans’ Services Committee, noting a half dozen other states have already barred their employers from participating in the waiver program.
Before the pandemic hit, an estimated 3,000 South Carolinians were paid less than $7.25 an hour. That’s since shrunk to about 1,200 people. The decrease amid COVID-19 job losses offers an ideal time to phase out the subminimum wage, the nonprofit Able South Carolina, which has campaigned for the change, said.
Sen. Tom Davis called the loophole bad public policy.
It “reflects values or thoughts that were widely held in the 1930s when people with disabilities were thought of in certain ways. Ninety years later, I can’t imagine something like this passing today,” said the Beaufort Republican.
“Individuals with disabilities have the right and should have the right to be treated the same as everyone else in employment,” he added. “Employers ought not to have a special right to look at this group and say, ‘Aha, maybe I can pay them this.'”
But others countered businesses that participate are trying to help, not take advantage, of the disabled and may no longer be able to afford keeping them employed.
“I’m sure there are some looking at the bottom dollar and cheap labor,” said Sen. Dwight Loftis, R-Greenville. But for others, “one of their goals is to get them a job … to give them gratification of accomplishing something, and there are various stages of disability.
“I’ve been at places people are doing very, very, very simple things” Loftis continued. “They’re doing the best to their ability but it’s very simple tasks. The question is, would an employer continue to use that option to give these people the benefit of a job to build their self esteem?”
Loftis said he believes people instead will be left “sitting home doing nothing all day.”
Kitty O’Neill of Charleston called the measure the “worst thing I’ve ever heard.”
Her 38-year-old son, who has the mentality of a child, fills packets at a work center for people with disabilities. He gets paid by the piece. She’s unsure how that translates to an hourly wage, “but he’s happy. It’s a lifesaver for us to have this. He doesn’t care if he gets paid,” O’Neill said, adding he’s picked up and brought home daily.
“It’s not work to him,” she said. “It’s something he loves doing. It’s just sad. It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard of. These children are not being mistreated.”
But advocates contend people haven’t lost their jobs in states that have enacted similar legislation.
Plus, the measure creates a task force of advocacy and business groups to make sure that doesn’t happen here either, said Beth Franco, director of Disability Rights South Carolina.
“We’re not just going to turn off a switch and suddenly people will lose their ability to work. We’re going to use examples of what’s worked in other states,” she said, noting the bill has already been years in the making. “People with disabilities do want options to work in the community and be paid for that work. It’s a right to have these options available.”
Sen. Penry Gustafson, R-Camden, was among several senators of both parties who added their names as sponsors of the bill mid-debate.
“Adults with special needs sometimes need a little more time to learn a task or something on the job, but once they know it, they will do it very well and should be paid for their time,” said Gustafson, a former case manager for the state Department of Disabilities and Special Needs.
“There are many adults with special needs who work a lot harder than other people I see out there not even trying to get work,” Gustafson said. “They’re dependable. They’re on time, and they do their best every time.”
Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.