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Bipartisan Push to End Subminimum Wage for Workers with Disabilities in Georgia

Georgia is poised to become a notable example in the movement to end the subminimum wage for disabled workers, with a significant legislative effort led by Republicans, a departure from the commonly Democrat-led initiatives in this arena. The state’s recent legislative actions include the passage of a bill by the Georgia House aiming to abolish the practice that allows employers to pay disabled workers less than the minimum wage, affecting some 40,000 individuals across the country. This bill, championed by GOP state Rep. Sharon Cooper alongside bipartisan support, highlights a shift in the political landscape concerning disability rights.

Historically, the allowance for subminimum wages for disabled workers dates back to 1938, with the establishment of the federal minimum wage law. This exception has been increasingly contested due to its exploitation of disabled workers, who in some cases earn as little as 22 cents an hour in sheltered workshops. These workshops have been criticized for their business model, which includes paying executives high salaries while exploiting disabled employees.

Georgia’s approach to phasing out the subminimum wage is particularly aggressive, aiming to eliminate 50 percent of the certificates that permit these wages within the first year of the law’s enactment, with a complete phase-out by the second year. This method contrasts with the more gradual three to five-year phase-out period seen in other states.

The initiative in Georgia also reflects a broader political shift. Disability rights, once a bipartisan cause as evidenced by the Americans with Disabilities Act signed into law by a Republican president, have increasingly become associated with progressive policies and Democrat leadership. However, the bipartisan support for the Georgia bill, especially its leadership under a Republican, offers a potential model for re-engaging Republicans in disability rights at both the state and federal levels, according to advocates Julie Christensen and Dom Kelly. This initiative stands out against a backdrop of fractious state politics, particularly concerning other contentious issues like LGBTQ+ rights and voting rights.

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