FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Clients perform a variety of tasks in the classroom area.
Clients’ pay scale raised alarm for labor inspectors
The wages that Opportunities for the Retarded Inc. reported paying its clients for craft assembly in 2006 were so low - averaging 13 cents an hour - that they caught the eye of a state Labor Department inspector, who asked for justification.
Businesses that hire disabled workers are allowed to pay less than the state's minimum wage, now $7.25 an hour, based on individual productivity as measured by the employer. In her written response to the Labor Department, ORI Program Director Yvonne de Luna called the payments "behavior incentives" rather than wages.
"We are not producing any products and the level of our clients are such that they are unable to make any salable item," she wrote. She put the inspector in contact with state case managers for two clients, who confirmed that ORI worked with some severely disabled clients, and the pay scale was approved.
But the Labor Department inquiry seems to have prompted a change at ORI. The following year, a few clients who had been listed as earning pennies for craft assembly moved on to new jobs paying 10 times as much, according to state wage records.
One client listed as doing "craft assembly" at 18 cents an hour in 2006 was paid $2.02 the following year for working as a mess attendant. Another who made 17 cents an hour in 2006 moved on to a janitorial job at $1.33 an hour the following year. A third who had been listed as earning 18 cents an hour took a food-service job paying $1.61 an hour.
Asked about the changes, de Luna said that assignments often depend on job availability. "There may be clients that started off in a classroom setting, and after more training eventually they could move to other things," she said.
The majority of the 27 clients listed as doing craft assembly in 2006 did not appear at all in the 2007 wage certificate. De Luna said that was because they were in a classroom setting and not getting paid.
ORI later said that it listed clients as working on crafts in past years in wage certificates filed with the state, even though it has not had craft assembly for more than 10 years.
"We've filled out the application, just in case we were presented with a project," ORI said in a written statement. "In 2006 we learned that the way we were filling out the state DOL form should change to avoid confusion."
The Hawaii Disability Rights Center questioned the pay scale at ORI in a report that raised concerns about conflicts of interest at the institution.
This year's state special minimum wage certificate for ORI has no craft assembly category. Instead, it lists 38 clients, with wages averaging $2.82 an hour for mess hall, food service and custodial work, jobs that it previously reported only to the federal government.
Its current rates are in line with those of another major employer of the disabled, Lanakila Rehabilitation Center, which is paying its 85 clients an average of $2.89 an hour this year, according to its state wage certificate. Jobs include custodial work, mess attendant and grounds maintenance. The Arc of Hilo pays its 45 clients more, an average of $4.82 an hour this year, for janitorial, groundskeeping and laundry jobs.
ORI had contracts with the Army and Navy totaling $2.2 million in fiscal year 2006 to provide food services and janitorial services, according to OMB Watch, a nonprofit that tracks federal government spending for the public.
One of the workers on those projects is Brian Yamamoto, an ORI client with Down syndrome. Yamamoto, 48, says he enjoys working at Fort Shafter, wiping tables and buffing floors. He does not have a legal guardian, and his parents say they do not know what ORI pays him.
"Whatever he gets is fine with us," said his mother, Aiko Yamamoto. "I'm just happy that he's able to learn something."