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West Virginia House of Delegates Preserves Minimum Wage Exemption for Disabled Workers

WHEELING — The new executive director of Russell Nesbitt Services says workshops for the disabled couldn’t operate if they were forced to pay all disabled workers minimum wage.

Monday was Jane Ketcham’s first day on the job at Russell Nesbitt. It was also the day the West Virginia Legislature heard debate on House Bill 337, a measure addressing minimum wage and maximum hours standards for workers in the state.

Currently workers at nonprofit shelter workshops are exempt from earning the state’s minimum wage of $8.75 an hour. An amendment offered by Delegate Chad Lovejoy, R-Cabell — which would have eliminated the exemption — was rejected by delegates.

“It is a good thing it was shot down,” Ketcham said. “There are individuals who have the capability for some work, and who want to work — but not the capability to justify giving them minimum wage.”

The amendment, she said, would have eliminated many disabled individuals from workshops.

“Some amount of work is better than none,” she said.

“Some of these folks benefit not only from the money, but from the work environment, the social interaction, and the self-esteem that comes from working.

“This would have been an unfunded mandate. We simply couldn’t have operated a shelter workshop, and we would have had to close.”

Ketcham said there are 31 workers in the workshops at Russell Nesbitt who earn minimum wage or above, while as many as 58 workers earn less. Some are paid an hourly rate, while others are paid by the piece.

The workers do such things as shredding documents, mail sorting and packaging for Silgan Plastics in what is a combination working and training environment, according to Ketcham.

“Our goal is to move them into the main stream of the workplace, and in some cases that takes a good while,” she said. “Workers in the sheltered workforce are not able to perform like those in the general workforce.”

At the Seeing Hand Association in Wheeling, blind workers all are paid minimum wage, according to Executive Director Karen Haught.

“The National Federation of the Blind feels it is important for blind workers in these workshops to receive minimum wage because in the long term, they need to pay into Social Security,” she said. “Most of our workers are high functioning and deserve a minimum wage.”

There are four full-time and six part-time blind workers at The Seeing Hand. Among the workers, three are considered totally blind while the others have some amount of sight, according to Haught. They work to refurbish fire extinguishers and cane chairs and to produce mops. They also work in a garden area at The Seeing Hand.

One employee serves as shop supervisor, while another teaches Braille and access to computer technology.

Haught said there are some families who are concerned about allowing their blind relative to work because earning money may affect the benefits they receive.

Haught has arranged for a seminar on “Work Incentive Planning and Assistance” to answer questions for those with disabilities. The presentation will take place from 9:30 a.m. to noon March 21 at Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack. Speaking will be Jennifer Tenney from the Center for Excellence in Disabilities.

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