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New Mexico investigates nonprofit group over pay disparities

By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYANMarch 18, 2019
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This March 18, 2019 image shows the entrance to the Adelante Development Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The state attorney general's office announced Monday that it was investigating allegations that the nonprofit organization, which helps people with developmental disabilities find jobs, was underpaying workers. The organization said it welcomes the attorney general's review of labor laws that govern pay for workers within the disability community. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)
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This March 18, 2019 image shows the entrance to the Adelante Development Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The state attorney general's office announced Monday that it was investigating allegations that the nonprofit organization, which helps people with developmental disabilities find jobs, was underpaying workers. The organization said it welcomes the attorney general's review of labor laws that govern pay for workers within the disability community. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s attorney general said Monday his office is investigating a nonprofit organization that helps people with disabilities find work as advocates are suing over what they describe as “sweatshop jobs.”

Hector Balderas said his office is looking into allegations that Adelante Development Center is underpaying employees. The review also will examine the practice statewide and could include other providers that offer similar services.

“This is a vulnerable population and they deserve additional protections. It’s worthwhile for us to make sure that they’re not being exploited in any way,” Balderas said.

He said while Adelante and other groups have done a lot to support those in the disability community, investigators will be focused on allegations involving wage disparities and whether the workers are being provided training and opportunities that would allow them to integrate into the broader labor pool.

Balderas’ announcement follows a lawsuit filed Friday against Adelante. In the complaint, Disability Rights New Mexico alleges violations of state and municipal minimum wage laws.

The lawsuit specifically details the experiences of three workers, saying hundreds like them are hired to scan and shred documents, remove staples from paper, fix torn documents and drive around town picking up boxes for shredding, among other things.

Workers are paid less than the state minimum wage — sometimes as little as 18 cents an hour, according to the lawsuit.

The case is centered on a decades-old law that allows employers to obtain waivers to pay workers with disabilities less than minimum wage under certain conditions when approval is given by state labor officials. Advocates say the law is old-fashioned and needs to be modernized.

The lawsuit seeks to stop the practice. It also seeks back-pay for the workers.

Adelante spokeswoman Jill Beets said the company hasn’t had an opportunity to review the allegations in the lawsuit but that it has been honest and transparent about its work with all disability groups.

“We welcome an investigation by the attorney general as it will give us a chance to clear Adelante’s name before a lengthy court battle may allow,” Beets said.

She said competitive employment within the community is a priority for the organization along with finding good paying jobs for people with disabilities at other local businesses.

Some argue that without the provision in federal law that allows for lesser wages, employers would not be able to afford those workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities who need additional support and accommodations.

Critics say while disabled workers might not be as productive, paying them less amounts to discrimination. They also say Adelante and similar organizations benefit by collect state and private funds for employing such workers.

According to the lawsuit, Adelante is paid by the state for every hour that some of its employees work. It also collects checks from some supportive living programs for each hour worked by residents employed by Adelante.

Headquartered in Albuquerque and governed by a board of directors, Adelante has been in business for 40 years. It’s funded through Medicaid, state and federal grants, donations and revenue generated by its social enterprises.

“In exchange for the subminimum wages it pays it workers with disabilities, Adelante offers dead-end sweatshop jobs with few chances for advancement or transition to better employment,” the complaint states. “Plaintiffs’ work at Adelante is far from rehabilitative.”

While a few states have banned the practice of paying lesser wages to disabled workers, lawmakers have been unsuccessful in getting similar legislation passed in New Mexico.

However, the debate did result in a legislative work group to study the issue. Adelante and Disability Rights New Mexico have participated in the discussion.

Six lawmakers recently sent Balderas a letter, pointing to the allegations in their request for a review of subminimum wage agreements involving disabled workers.

“While the laws that created subminimum wage authority were originally intended to foster workforce participation by individuals with disabilities, they now appear to be having the opposite, discriminatory effect,” the lawmakers wrote.

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