Utah’s Decision to Pay Disabled Workers Less Sparks Outrage

In a move that has drawn sharp criticism from disability advocates and disabled individuals alike, the Utah legislature recently rejected House Bill 205, a proposal aimed at ensuring fair wages for disabled workers. This bill sought to end the practice of paying disabled workers less than the minimum wage, a step forward in improving the quality of life for the disabled community. However, the legislature’s decision to strike down the bill sends a disheartening message: disabled individuals in Utah are left to navigate an already challenging landscape with even less support.

The refusal to pass House Bill 205 is a stark reminder of America’s ongoing struggle to value and respect disabled workers. From accusations of unsafe work environments at major corporations to barriers in employment, disabled individuals face discrimination and marginalization. And now, with the rise of COVID, the urgency to address these injustices grows even more pressing.

Shelby Hintze, a Utah-based disability advocate living with spinal muscular atrophy, is among those fighting for change. Last year, Hintze proposed HB 252, aimed at ensuring permanently disabled individuals maintain Medicaid access. Despite initial support, the proposal was ultimately struck down, exemplifying the uphill battle for disability rights in Utah—a state where approximately 647,000 adults live with a disability.

The controversy extends beyond Utah’s borders, touching on a national issue: the Fair Labor Standards Act’s Section 14(c), which allows businesses to pay disabled workers subminimum wages. While some states have moved to ban this practice, Utah remains among those upholding it, further entrenching the devaluation of disabled workers.

The persistence of subminimum wages in right-to-work states like Utah, where unions’ influence is diminished, raises significant concerns. Disabled individuals already face considerable obstacles in securing employment and housing due to pervasive discrimination. The maintenance of legal frameworks that explicitly devalue disabled workers only exacerbates these challenges.

The struggle for disability rights in Utah is influenced by the dominant presence of the Church of the Latter-day Saints, which, according to critics, often adopts a patronizing approach towards disabled individuals. This cultural backdrop complicates efforts to promote equity and inclusion for the disabled community.

Despite these setbacks, advocates like Hintze and Nat Slater, a disability justice organizer, remain committed to pushing for legislative changes that affirm the value and dignity of disabled individuals. However, the legislature’s recent actions signal a long road ahead in achieving equality and justice for disabled workers in Utah and beyond.

As the fight for disability rights continues, it becomes clear that this issue affects not just the disabled community but society as a whole. The call for fair treatment and equal opportunities for disabled individuals is a call for a more just and equitable world for everyone.