Kansas organizations denounce Tarwater’s claim people with disabilities ‘can’t do anything’

Assertion surfaces in debate on tax break for businesses tied to sheltered workshops

By: - February 16, 2023 5:39 pm
Rep. Sean Tarwater, R-Stilwell and chairman of the House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee, has been criticized because he said people with disabilities would "rot at home" without jobs at sheltered workshops eligible under federal law to pay subminimum wage of less than $7.25 per hour. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Rep. Sean Tarwater, R-Stilwell and chairman of the House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee, has been criticized because he said people with disabilities would “rot at home” without jobs at sheltered workshops eligible under federal law to pay subminimum wage of less than $7.25 per hour. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Two Kansas disability advocacy organizations condemned Thursday an assertion by Rep. Sean Tarwater that people with disabilities would “rot at home” because they “really can’t do anything” in terms of securing employment outside of sheltered workshops allowed to pay workers less than minimum wage.

The controversy surfaced on Valentine’s Day when the Republican chairman of the House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee expressed support for a bill making sheltered workshops eligible for a state tax credit program. The sheltered workshops in Kansas, under the House bill, would be able to dangle the tax credit in front of potential businesses partners.

Tarwater, of Stilwell, was unhappy because Rep. Laura Williams, R-Lenexa, offered an amendment to the bill making sheltered workshops ineligible for the tax subsidy. He said the bipartisan amendment violated his warning against dragging sheltered workshops “through the mud” at the Capitol.

“These shelters do perform a good function for these disabled individuals,” Tarwater said. “They are people who really can’t do anything. And, if you do away with programs like that, they will rot at home. There is no place for them to go.”

Tarwater said sheltered workshops were places where people with disabilities could be “taken care of. They’re fed. They have a place to go and be functional, and they’re happy.”

He urged the House committee to reject Williams’ amendment because it was important to support sheltered workshops and allied companies. The amendment was defeated.

The Disability Rights Center of Kansas and the Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities issued statements objecting to Tarwater’s perspective on sheltered workshops and the capabilities of people with disabilities.

Sara Hart Weir, executive director of the Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities, said she “strongly” condemned Tarwater’s remark and expressed disappointment the state representative hadn’t apologized to people he offended. She said phasing out the subminimum wage contained in an 85-year-old federal law or excluding sheltered workshops from the tax program wouldn’t result in people with disabilities wasting away at home.

“In fact,” she said, “it will do the complete opposite by ensuring people with disabilities earn fair wages for real work, have more career opportunities and encourage Kansas corporations and small businesses to open their doors to new talent from Kansans with disabilities.”

Hart Weir said decades of research demonstrated people with disabilities with access to inclusive education, quality training, workplace accommodations and customized supports could be gainfully employed in just about any industry.

Tarwater’s comments during the committee hearing at the Capitol, she said, were “unacceptable, derogatory and completely inappropriate” because people with disabilities represented the largest cadre of untapped talent in the state. Addressing the unemployment crisis in the disability community shouldn’t hinge on tax policy saddling people with disabilities to a life of “poverty, discrimination and segregation.”

She said her organization worked on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and had zero tolerance for this type of “mockery and offense.”

Tarwater didn’t respond to requests for comment Thursday about criticism of his views on employing people with disabilities. His district in the House fell within Johnson County, and Johnson County Developmental Services abandoned the practice of paying people with disabilities less than minimum wage.

Rocky Nichols, executive director of the Disability Rights Center of Kansas, said Kansans across the disability community were shocked and outraged by Tarwater’s characterizations. He urged Tarwater to apologize and requested the lawmaker correct his misstatements.

“My phone has been ringing off the hook from people with disabilities telling me the chairman’s comments were both hurtful and simply not true. They are right,” Nichols said. “We see these inappropriate remarks as a teachable moment for everyone.”

Nichols said the “can’t-do-anything” way of viewing people with disabilities went out of style with bell bottoms and disco music. He said people with disabilities had amazing talents and made substantial contributions to the state. He said people with disabilities in Kansas were more independent that at any point in the past. Those employed outside sheltered workshops were paid at least minimum wage and often more, he said.

“Many people with disabilities tell us that they feel like they are wasting their talents when they are working in a sheltered workshop, often for pennies an hour,” Nichols said. “They tell us that they feel trapped or stuck in the sheltered workshop that pays them less than minimum wage, even though many of those same workshops have lucrative contracts with businesses.”

A 2020 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report found the average wage of a person with a disability working in a job covered by the lower-than-minimum wage made $3.34 per hour in 2017 and 2018.

Nichols said the number of Kansas entities clinging to the subminimum wage for people with disabilities had fallen from 38 in 2019 to 23 in 2023.

Under House Bill 2275, sheltered workshops in Kansas paying some employees with disabilities less than minimum wage would for the first time be eligible for the state tax credit. Enactment of the bill would mean sheltered workshops seeking contracts with companies could use the tax break as an incentive to attract more business.

Current state tax law made companies making purchases from qualified vendors eligible for $5 million in tax credits from 2019 to 2023, but that law excluded entities paying subminimum wage to employees. The new bill endorsed by Tarwater would allow sheltered workshops, if they created a subdivision paying those workers minimum wage, to be among employers eligible for $10 million in state tax credits from 2024 to 2029.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.