TOPEKA – Two Kansas disability advocacy organizations condemned a claim by Rep. Shawn Tarwater Thursday that people with disabilities would “rot at home” because they “really can’t do anything” in terms of securing employment outside of labs protected allowed to pay workers less than the minimum wage.
The controversy erupted on Valentine’s Day when the Republican chairman of the House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee expressed support for a bill making sheltered laboratories eligible for a state tax credit program . Protected Kansas workshops, under the House bill, could dangle the tax credit in front of potential business partners.
Tarwater, of Stilwell, was unhappy because Rep. Laura Williams, R-Lenexa, offered an amendment to the bill making sheltered workshops ineligible for the tax subsidy. She said the bipartisan amendment violated her warning against dragging protected workshops “in the mud” at the Capitol.
“These shelters serve a good function for these disabled people,” Tarwater said. “They are people who can’t really do anything. And, if you delete programs like that, they will rot at home. There’s no place to go.”
Tarwater said sheltered labs are places where people with disabilities can be “cared for. They are fed. They have somewhere to go and be functional and they are happy.
He urged the House committee to reject Williams’ amendment because it was important to support protected workshops and allied businesses. The amendment was defeated.
The Disability Rights Center of Kansas and the Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities have released statements opposing Tarwater’s perspective on sheltered laboratories and the capabilities of people with disabilities.
Sara Hart Weir, executive director of the Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities, said she “strongly” condemned Tarwater’s remark and expressed disappointment that the state representative had not apologized to people he had offended. She said phasing out the minimum wage contained in an 85-year federal law would not result in people with disabilities wasting away at home.
“In fact,” he said, “it will do the exact opposite by ensuring people with disabilities earn fair wages for real work, have more career opportunities, and encourage Kansas corporations and small businesses to open their doors to new talent.” coming from Kansas with disabilities.”
Hart Weir said decades of research have shown that people with disabilities with access to inclusive education, quality training, workplace accommodations, and personalized supports could be profitably employed in nearly any industry.
Tarwater’s comments during the committee hearing on Capitol Hill, he said, were “unacceptable, derogatory and completely inappropriate” because people with disabilities represented the largest pool of untapped talent in the state. Tackling the unemployment crisis in the disability community should not depend on fiscal policy that forces people with disabilities into a life of “poverty, discrimination and segregation.”
She said her organization worked on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and had zero tolerance for this type of “tease and abuse.”
Tarwater did not respond to requests for comment Thursday over criticism of his views on hiring people with disabilities. Her district in the House fell under Johnson County, and Johnson County Development Services abandoned the practice of paying people with disabilities less than the minimum wage.
Rocky Nichols, executive director of the Disability Rights Center of Kansas, said Kansans across the disability community were shocked and outraged by Tarwater’s characterizations. He urged Tarwater to apologize and asked the legislature to correct his mistakes.
“My phone rang off the hook from people with disabilities telling me the president’s comments were both hurtful and just plain untruthful. They’re right,” Nichols said. “We view these inappropriate remarks as a teachable moment for everyone.”
Nichols said the “nothing can be done” way of viewing people with disabilities went out of style with bell bottoms and disco music. You said people with disabilities have extraordinary talents and have made substantial contributions to the state. She said people with disabilities in Kansas were more independent than at any time in the past. Those employed outside the sheltered labs were paid at least minimum wage and often more, she said.
“Many people with disabilities tell us they feel like they are wasting their talents when they work in a sheltered laboratory, often for pennies an hour,” Nichols said. “They tell us they feel trapped or stuck in the sheltered lab that pays them less than minimum wage, even though many of those same labs have lucrative contracts with businesses.”
A 2020 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report found that the median wage of a person with a disability in sub-minimum wage covered work was $3.34 an hour in 2017 and 2018.
Nichols said the number of Kansas entities sticking to the minimum wage for people with disabilities dropped from 38 in 2019 to 23 in 2023.
Under House Bill 2275, protected shops in Kansas that pay some employees with disabilities less than minimum wage could qualify for the state tax credit for the first time. Enactment of the bill would mean sheltered workshops seeking contracts with companies could use the tax break as an incentive to attract more business.
Current state tax law made companies that purchase from qualified suppliers eligible for $5 million in tax credits from 2019 to 2023, but that law excluded entities that pay employees sub-minimum wages. The new bill passed by Tarwater would allow protected garages, if they create a subdivision that pays those workers the minimum wage, to be among the employers eligible for $10 million in state tax credits from 2024 to 2029.