Bill sparks people with blindness, other disabilities to picket at Sen. Roberts office

Persons with disabilities and their supporters will be picketing Tuesday morning in front of Sen. Pat Roberts’ Wichita office, part of a nationwide protest against a federal bill to make it easier to employ disabled workers at less than the minimum wage.

The picketers are opposed to new rules in a bill to reauthorize the Federal Workforce Investment Act. The bill is before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, of which Roberts is a member.

Similar demonstrations are planned across the country at the district offices of all of the committee members.

The Kansas demonstrators are characterizing their 10 a.m. event as an “educational” picket after Roberts indicated he’s willing to hear their concerns, said Donna Wood, state president for the National Federation of the Blind, the group organizing the demonstrations.

Roberts press secretary Andrea Candrian said the senator has not made up his mind on the issue, and has also been contacted by other disability organizations that support the proposal.

“Before any changes are made, he wants to fully understand the consequences, and will continue to reach out and study it,” Candrian said.

Chris Danielson, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind in Washington, said the bill would solidify language in federal law allowing some employers to pay disabled workers less than the federal minimum wage. The NFB contends the bill would also encourage rehabilitation case agents to take the easy route of steering clients who have disabilities toward sub-minimum-wage jobs in “sheltered” workshops.

Wood said she sees it primarily as an issue of equal pay for equal work.

She said she doesn’t think it’s justifiable to pay a worker with a disability less than minimum wage when they bring “equal time, equal energy and equal skill” as other workers.

The bill is currently scheduled for a committee vote on Aug. 3.

However, “It’s been scheduled numerous times and been pushed back,” Candrian said, so it’s uncertain whether the committee will actually take action next week.