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Local Workers Paid Pennies An Hour
MOBILE, Ala. (WPMI) Brandon Bateman, 29, has been working at Mobile ARC Enterprises for five years. He works hard and works quickly, preparing plant sleeves for distribution to local garden centers.
I fold sleeves, I nest them up, put them in [piles of] 50, and get them ready to bundle, Bateman said.
Bateman is a person with disabilities, and Mobile ARC has helped him master a wide range of skills: good attendance, completing tasks, and perhaps most important, bringing home a paycheck.
I like making money, he said with a smile, I think everybody down here likes making money.
But some say Bateman and his peers arent making nearly enough. Mobile ARC is one of hundreds of agencies nationwide that holds a special wage certificate. Its part of a 75-year-old law that allows certain companies to pay workers with disabilities far less than the minimum wage.
Currently there are over 400,000 people with disabilities employed at wages less than the federal minimum, said Anil Lewis.
Lewis is the Director of Advocacy and Policy for the National Federation of the Blind. He went blind at the age of 25, and as a child was labeled educably mentally retarded. Lewis said hes proof such labels should have nothing to do with a persons earning potential.
We as a society are better than this, Lewis said, No longer should people in our society be exposed to this type of exploitation.
An NBC News investigation found that Goodwill Industries pays some workers with disabilities as little as 22 cents an hour.
Records we obtained show Goodwill Easter Seals of Mobile pays some workers as little as $1.33 an hour. Mobile ARC pays some workers less than $1 an hour; some as low as 15 cents.
Mobile ARC Executive Director Jeff Zoghby said for many of the workers its not about the money, but the priceless skills they learn.
Were working on simple things that other folks take for granted, Zoghby said, Task completion, problem solving, safety is huge for us.
Bateman is a shining example of those skills at work.
Zoghby said simply paying everyone more wouldnt be feasible at a program like Mobile ARC.
Its not an easy answer like everybody ought to be making minimum wage or better, he said, Its just not that simple. Its much more complex.
Were not advocating for someone whos currently making 2 cents an hour to get a $7.25 wage, said Lewis, Thats unreasonable. What were advocating for is for individuals who are being productive enough to earn the minimum wage to be paid the minimum wage.
Lewis is also pushing for more training to help folks with disabilities move on from specialized work centers and get full time jobs in their communities.
As for Bateman, thats exactly what he hopes for, and more.
I would like to get married one day and have kids of my own, Bateman said, and have my own place and just live life how it is.
Lewis and others are backing a house bill that would phase out special wage certificates over three years.
You can read more about the legislation and how to make your voice heard by going to nfb.org/fair-wages.