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Government, Politics & Issues

Aldermen advance legislation exempting sheltered workshops from minimum wage hike

Antonia Banks and her son John Paul testify on Thursday at the Board of Aldermen's Ways and Means Committee. They were speaking in support of a bill exempting sheltered workshops from a mnimum wage hike.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
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Antonia Banks and her son John Paul testify on Thursday at the Board of Aldermen's Ways and Means Committee. They were speaking in support of a bill exempting sheltered workshops from a mnimum wage hike.

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen is closer to exempting sheltered workshops from the city’s new minimum wage law.

When the city raised its minimum wage to $11 an hour by 2018, it didn’t exempt sheltered workshops. Those are facilities that provide job opportunities to people with developmental disabilities – and often pay less than the minimum wage.

Alderman Scott Ogilvie, D-24th Ward, sponsored legislation exempting workshops from the minimum wage law, which is being challenged in court. Ogilvie’s bill on Thursday passed out of the Board’s Ways and Means Committee on a 4-1 vote.

During the hearing, Ogilvie said that the city’s four sheltered workshops would have a difficult time bidding for work if they’re not exempted. And time is of the essence, since the city’s minimum wage is set to increase to $8.25 an hour in mid October. It is now $7.65.

Alderman Scott Ogilvie, D-24th Ward, fears that without his bill, sheltered workshops in the city may not be able to remain open.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Alderman Scott Ogilvie, D-24th Ward, fears that without his bill, sheltered workshops in the city may not be able to remain open.

“Sheltered workshops have been providing services to developmentally disabled people in St. Louis and Missouri for a long time,” Ogilvie said. “Within the minimum wage bill, part of that bill would have made it very difficult for them to continue operating. It could jeopardize the employment of almost 400 people with disabilities in St. Louis who are employed in the four sheltered workshops.”

The lack of an exemption for sheltered workshop became a big point of contention during debate over Alderman Shane Cohn’s bill raising the minimum wage. In fact, several aldermen – including Jeffrey Boyd, D-22th Ward – stated their ‘yes’ votes depended on a sheltered workshop exemption being passed later. 

During debate on the measure last month, Cohn told his colleagues that he would “personally commit to making sure that when we come back Sept. 11 that we will address … specifically the conversations that we’re having on the floor at this moment as it pertains to the workshop programs.”

Lively debate

Ogilvie’s legislation generated passionate testimony from people both supportive and opposed to the idea of an exemption.

Ogilvie's bill encountered strong opposition from some disability rights activists.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Ogilvie's bill encountered strong opposition from some disability rights activists.

Antonia Banks’ son John Paul works at Industrial Aid, a sheltered workshop in St. Louis. John Paul has Downs Syndrome, and Banks worries what would happen to her son if the workshop closes.

“These sheltered workshops mean so much to many people with disabilities and their families who sometimes can’t make it in the mainstream workplace,” Banks said. “His job was part of John Paul’s health and wellness. John Paul has been a gift to us from God. And Industrial Aid has been a gift to John Paul from God.”

But others, including Paraquad President and CEO Aimee Wehmeier, said it was wrong not to pay a fair wage to disabled employees. She said after the meeting that her group believes “that every person, regardless of disability, deserves a minimum wage.”

When asked what would happen if the sheltered workshops shut down because of the minimum wage law, Wehmeier said the entities “can change their business model to treat people with disabilities as they treat any other worker in Missouri.”

“The city of St. Louis has made a determination that every other citizen of St. Louis is entitled to a minimum wage except for people with developmental disabilities,” Wehmeier said. “And that is unethical, immoral and it’s a step backwards in time.”

Theresa Jordan has cerebral palsy and works at a sheltered workshop. She said she receives around $3.65 an hour – as well as disability funds from Social Security.

“I don’t want to see it close,” Jordan said. “All I want to do is make them [pay] minimum wage, be able to make a living for me and my daughter. And just make money like the rest of the people out here. Other than that, it’s not easy bringing home what I bring home and try to make ends meet.”

In response to some of the criticism over his bill, Ogilvie said, “It’s tough for us in St. Louis to rework a whole system that the state primarily makes the rules for and the state primarily funds.

“Obviously, organizations adapt. These organizations are driven by a mission to provide services. I’m sure they would try to keep operating,” Ogilvie said. “But the minimum wage puts a dark cloud of uncertainty in how they would continue to fund their organizations and operate. So we’re just trying to give them assurance here by changing the law that they can keep doing what they’ve been doing.”

Ogilvie’s bill still needs approval from the Board of Aldermen before heading to St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay’s desk.

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