Bill seeks community integration for people with disabilities

CHEYENNE — A recently passed bill in the Wyoming Legislature has created some confusion about employment options for people with developmental disabilities in Sheridan.

House Bill 73, sponsored by Rep. Lee Filer, D-Laramie, establishes that the state should have a policy that promotes “employment first,” meaning that, when possible, state agencies should try to place people with developmental disabilities in competitive jobs that make at or above minimum wage that are integrated into the community.

However, recent media reports indicated that organizations that serve people with developmental disabilities, like Rehabilitation Enterprises of North East Wyoming, feared the bill would eliminate their programs that employ people who are unable to function at a regular, integrated job in whatever type of work they are able to perform for wages that are below minimum wage but match the amount and type of work they do.

That is not the case, Rep. Kathy Coleman, R-Sheridan, said.

After passage of an amendment Coleman proposed, organizations like RENEW will be allowed to continue to use special certificates, called sub minimum wage certificates, to employ people with development disabilities who can’t work an integrated job.

“14C is a waiver you can get from the federal government that lets you pay employees with disabilities below minimum wage. It’s supposed to be a fair wage based on their output,” Coleman said.

“If somebody is much less productive based on what their abilities or disabilities are, 14C is a waiver you can apply for that says, well, we want to pay them something but can’t afford to pay them what we would pay outside of the supported employment setting.”

Coleman said her amendment ensures that organizations like RENEW will be able to continue their employment programs — which include duties like recycling and paper shredding — that serve as a training ground to help people with developmental disabilities learn skills that can be used in the regular workforce and to give them a sense of fulfillment and responsibility.

RENEW CEO Chris Ahlstrom said he and others with his organization were originally concerned about House Bill 73 because they feared it could eliminate their programs entirely or that they would be required to pay minimum wage to the people they employ through the sub minimum wage waiver, which would be cost prohibitive for RENEW.

With the amendment, however, Ahlstrom said he approves.

“We are totally in support of the bill as it’s written with the amendment, with the exclusion for providers like ourselves,” Ahlstrom said.

Executive Director of Wyoming Community Service Providers Steve Bahmer said his organization is in full support of the bill with the amendment, as well.

“What Rep. Filer’s bill does is say we’re going to make it state policy to seek that community integrated employment option first, and if that’s not an option, then of course, the center based employment option remains,” Bahmer said.

Bahmer did say there is discussion on the federal level about eliminating center-based employment.

“You can see how a bill that deems community integrated employment should be first might be mistaken for that kind of national movement, but that’s not what this bill is,” Bahmer said.

Filer said the bill is not intended to mandate that people with developmental disabilities must work, must be hired or must be paid minimum wage if the sub minimum wage waiver and center-based employment are their best option.

He said its intent was to get the state focused on finding ways to integrate people with development disabilities into the community in order to save the state money it pays for day habilitation services and provide a better standard of living for people who often want to work.

It was really to improve the lives of people with disabilities. A lot of them just want to work,” Filer said. “But we have nothing in our departments to make them come together and to help find employment, to help train — we do train for vocational rehab, we do train for employment — but we need something in statute that makes them get together and do something to help this population get more and more integrated in the community.”

 

About

Hannah Wiest is the government and outdoors reporter for The Sheridan Press. She has lived in Colorado and Montana but loves her sunny home state of Wyoming best. She joined The Press staff in February 2013.

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