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Fri, Sept. 20

State moves toward disabled worker policy

The Arizona Industrial Commission is close to a final draft of a policy that could allow some disabled people to continue to work for less than the state's new minimum wage.

The minimum wage initiative Arizona voters approved this past November does not contain an exemption for such workers. In the past, they received an exemption through the federal minimum wage law.

Yavapai Exceptional Industries is a non-profit that has operated under this federal law for 33 years. It has hired 126 people in the Prescott region with various disabilities ranging from Down syndrome to brain injuries. Executive Director Brad Newman said many of the YEI employees can't get jobs in the regular workplace.

YEI creates its own products. It also gets contracts from other businesses and pays employees a percentage of prevailing wages based on their productivity. That percentage often ends up being greater than minimum wage. YEI helps some employees get jobs at other local businesses by training them for the employers, too.

YEI evaluates its workers' abilities every six months, Newman said. That meets the standards of the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities, which has accredited YEI.

The state could define some disabled workers as trainees, Newman said, and that's the gist of the Industrial Commission's draft policy.

The trainees would participate in vocational training programs and work for their own benefit, so they wouldn't necessarily get the minimum wage.

If someone trains for 54 months and still is not qualified for certain jobs, then the draft policy defines that person as a "service recipient" who also is working for his/her own benefit versus the benefit of the employer.

YEI employees would fit into these descriptions, Industrial Commission Director Larry Etchechury said.

Industrial Commission staff members hope to have a final draft within a few weeks and then the commission will schedule a public meeting about it, Etchechury said.

The commission will issue a policy statement to cover disabled workers temporarily while the state goes through its more formal rulemaking process that could take about a year, Etchechury said.

A bill in the Arizona Legislature also seeks to provide immunity to employers relying on the Industrial Commission's rules about hiring developmentally disabled people.

House Bill 2737 says a certified employer is not liable for failure to pay prevailing wages to a disabled worker if the employer is acting in good faith and relying on Industrial Commission regulations.

Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard recently issued an opinion saying that the new minimum wage law covers disabled employees.

However, a footnote to his opinion states that it doesn't discuss whether a particular worker is an employee as the law defines it.

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