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Workers with disabilities sue Albuquerque company over wages

March 19, 2019

Three workers with developmental disabilities are suing a nonprofit organization that employed them for less than the minimum wage as part of a long-running federally approved program that critics say is discriminatory and illegal.

Adelante Development Center has for years run several businesses, such as a mailing and fulfillment center as well as a document-destruction facility, employing people with developmental disabilities.

The 80-year-old provision in federal labor law that allows for subminimum wages was meant as an incentive for employers to hire people with disabilities. Over the years, it has come to be used by nonprofit organizations running employment programs.

The lawsuit filed by several advocacy groups says that while the organization got approval from the federal government to pay some workers with disabilities less than minimum wage, it did not get approval from the state, as required under a provision of New Mexico law.

On Monday, Attorney General Hector Balderas said he has opened an investigation into the organization.

“I am disturbed that an organization tasked with helping some of New Mexico’s most vulnerable people would intentionally take advantage of them,” he said.

In 2015, some workers in Adelante’s mailing and fulfillment center were paid as little as 18 cents an hour, according to the lawsuit filed in state District Court. Some workers in its document-destruction facility were paid as little as $1.82 an hour, the lawsuit says. Paying less than the minimum wage amounts to thousands of dollars a day in savings for the organization, the lawsuit charges.

Organizations like Adelante, based in Albuquerque, and relatives of some of its employees have been outspoken in defense of this section of federal labor law, known as 14(c), arguing the organization could not afford to hire workers who need the extra support and accommodations people with disabilities might.

Jill Beets, a spokeswoman for Adelante Development Center, said the organization places a priority on finding work for people with disabilities in workplaces at private businesses and in the community — jobs that pay the minimum wage or higher. And she said the organization welcomed the attorney general’s investigation.

“It will give us a chance to clear Adelante’s name before a lengthy court battle,” she said.

Advocates for the rights of people with disabilities have argued the practice of paying less than the minimum wage is fundamentally discriminatory.

“People should be paid at least a minimum wage for their labor and we don’t think it’s right people with disabilities are singled out,” said Joseph Turk, an attorney for Disability Rights New Mexico, which filed the case along with three other organizations.

State Reps. Joanne Ferrary and Angelica Rubio, Democrats from Las Cruces, sponsored legislation in 2017 that would have repealed the section of New Mexico law that allows employers to pay less than the minimum wage. The bill didn’t pass. Given that the state government is a client of Adelante Development Center, some lawmakers have suggested the state prohibit the practice among its contractors.

The lawsuit asks the court to award damages as well as prohibit the organization from paying less than the minimum wage. The lawsuit also asks a judge to allow class-action status and let other workers from Adelante Development Center join the case.