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Waiver allowing some businesses to pay people less than minimum wage could soon be thrown out in TN

SB2042 would do away with the 14-C waiver, which allows businesses to pay employees with disabilities less than minimum wage.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Across the nation, some people are making less money for doing the same job as others. Tennessee legislation is trying to change that.

A 14-C waiver authorizes employers to pay subminimum wages to workers who have intellectual or developmental disabilities. It's a waiver that's been around for 80 years. In Tennessee, it means businesses who qualify can pay employees with disabilities less than $7.25 an hour.

Emma Burgin with the UT Future program said the waiver goes against everything their program believes in.

"It comes from a very antiquated view about people with disabilities, that they don't have as much to offer as someone without disabilities. And I will tell you, that it's just not true," Burgin said.

The UT Future program is a vocational certificate program at the University of Tennessee. They help people with intellectual and developmental disabilities increase their independence in all realms of life. That means assisting and advocating for them in academics, activities, living on their own or even navigating the dating world. 

However, one of the biggest pillars of the program is career readiness.

"They really want increased quality of life. That's what they want. And that's what we all want," Burgin said. "So, we just try to wrap our services around them to make them successful."

Burgin has been the Coordinator of UT Future for nearly 5 years. In that time, she's watched her students mature and prove their potential for employment.

"I've learned that they are the most hardworking, enthusiastic people that you're going to have in a room at any given time," Burgin said. "The research shows that our people with disabilities are on time, they have the best attendance records to their jobs, they are enthusiastic and they contribute to workplace culture."

Aley Sasport is a senior student in the UT Future program. They said they have learned many things since joining Freshman year.

"I've learned and I'm still learning how to keep up with my time management," Sasport said.

They landed an internship with the Sertoma Center and help manage the front desk and file paperwork.

"I have I have my classes and now I have my internship and all of them just combined into like one," Sasport said.

They were lucky to land an internship that will turn into a job. The job is going to pay them $13 an hour.

"I didn't even realize it until I looked on the bank app that I have to check it. But it's a huge amount," Sasport said.

Sasport also said that the job made them feel valuable. They have an understanding that not everyone with a disability gets paid above minimum wage. 

1,197 companies across the nation applied for the 14-C waiver, in order to pay employees with disabilities less than the minimum wage. There are several companies located in Tennessee.

"We're not interested in placing our students in these kinds of sub-minimum wage jobs," Burgin said.

However, Tennessee Senator Jeff Yarbro introduced SB2042, which seeks to undo the 14-C waiver. 

It would Amend TCA Title 8 and Title 50 to remove the subminimum wage exception for an employee whose earning or productive capacity is impaired by age, physical, or mental deficiency or injury.

The bill passed with a bipartisan vote in the Tennessee House and Senate. It was sent to the Governor's desk to be signed on April 5.

According to Governor Bill Lee's office, they are reviewing the bill and will have an answer on whether he will sign it by Saturday. 

Burgin said this is a 'win' for her students and the UT Future program.

"With the right support, our students can do anything. And so to see this bill is kind of a validation of that," Burgin said.

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