Governor Newsom Signs SB639; We Get Response from the Bill’s Author, State Senator María Elena Durazo, and DOR’s Jessica Grove

On Monday, September 27, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB639, which will phase out the ability for employers in California to pay people with developmental disabilities below the federal minimum wage. Under federal law, companies can apply for special waivers, called 14(c) certificates, which allow employers to pay people with developmental disabilities below the federal minimum wage. Starting on January 1, 2022, no employer in California will be able to obtain a new 14(c) certificate, and by 2025, the program will be phased out entirely.

We spend today’s show honoring this important milestone in California history and celebrating National Disability Employment Awareness Month. We are joined by California State Senator María Elena Durazo, who introduced SB639, and by Jessica Grove, Assistant Deputy Director of the Vocational Rehabilitation Employment Division at the California Department of Rehabilitation (DOR). Jessica tells us how DOR supports people with disabilities in California to find and keep jobs. She also shares her experience as someone with a psychiatric disability in the workforce.


CARL SIGMOND, HOST: From KVMR Nevada City and in partnership with FREED, welcome to Disability Rap. I’m Carl Sigmond with Carly Pacheco.

CARLY PACHECO, HOST: October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and so we’re spending today’s show talking about the challenges and opportunities of being a disabled member of the workforce here in the United States. Later in the show, we will be joined by Jessica Grove from the California Department of Rehabilitation, or DOR. Jessica will tell us about DOR’s vocational rehabilitation programs, which help people with disabilities find and keep jobs, but first we turn to a subject that gets little attention in our society: subminimum wage labor laws. Under federal law, companies can apply for special waivers, called 14(c) certificates, which allow employers to pay people with developmental disabilities below the federal minimum wage.

Last Monday, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill to eliminate subminimum wages for people with disabilities in the state. The bill, SB639, will have California phase out the 14(c) program over the next three years, starting on January 1, 2022. With the passage of SB639, California joins Alaska, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oregon, and Texas, which have all banned subminimum wage employment for people with disabilities.

SIGMOND: Some workplaces that have 14(c) certificates are called sheltered workshops, where workers with disabilities work in segregated environments, often on assembly lines, away from their non-disabled peers. Workers employed under 14(c) certificates can earn as little as $2 an hour.

For more, we are joined by the author of SB639, California State Senator María Elena Durazo, a Democrat representing Los Angeles. She worked with a number of statewide disability advocacy organizations to introduce the bill and push it through the legislature.

Senator Durazo, welcome to Disability Rap. I just want to begin by thanking you for championing this bill through the legislature. It is a huge win for our community and actually for the nation as a whole. I want to ask you: what motivated you to introduce this bill? How did you get involved in this issue?

SEN. MARÍA ELENA DURAZO: Oh, gosh. Thank you, Carl. I feel so privileged to have been invited to join with disability rights and organizations across the state to do something about this, and the reason is, because, really, for me, it’s about the dignity of work. I have spent my whole life as a labor organizer, where I see that men, women, immigrants, people of color, people with disabilities, we get discriminated against all the time. We get discriminated… We get paid less and there’s always an excuse for that. We get treated worse. We get the worst jobs, and that’s across the board.

So, I’ve spent my whole life saying: that’s not right. That’s not good. And that’s not good for anybody in our community, to let other parts of our community be treated as less. And so, for me, it’s a civil rights issue. It’s a labor issue. It’s a community issue, where we respect every single individual human being for what we are… to the right to aspire to do certain things in our lives. And nobody should be able to tell us: no, you can’t do that. We decide what we can and can’t do, and what we want to do. And we ought to be given the opportunity and all the tools to be able to do that.

So, having been side by side with a hotel housekeeper, who was just given 30-40 rooms to clean and told: you don’t deserve any more money. That taught me. I was a farmworker. My whole family were farmworkers in California, picking cotton. I picked cotton. I picked grapes. I picked peaches. And we were always told: you don’t deserve more. You should be lucky that you can make a few dollars. You don’t deserve more. You don’t deserve enough to be able to rent the home for your family, so live out of our barn. Live out of our flatbed truck. Squat in this land over here. It was terrible.

And so, all of that, Carl, has taught me. What I think I tried to do by introducing SB639… And I’m so excited we got it passed, and we got it signed by the Governor. It is now law.

PACHECO: Here, here, and thank you again for pushing that through, Senator. And I appreciate your bringing up, really, the intersectionality, right, of all of these groups that have had such history – you know – marginalization for generations. And this is a huge step forward. So, could you talk a little bit about the history of sheltered workshops, subminimum wages, and those sorts of labor laws, both in California and also nationally, if you have that perspective?

SEN. DURAZO: Sure, I mean, Carl, you described sheltered workshops and what those are like. They’re these centers where people just perform repetitive tasks. They’re not really given an opportunity to do more than that repetitive task, and that’s all you were made to do in your life. They’re not held to… They’re not expected to develop the individual to another level. They’re not expected to have the professionalism of doing something else, to transition to another kind of work in their lives, in the community.

So, it really stems from a very archaic relic of the 1930s, and it also dates back to a time when children with disabilities were denied an education, just flat out denied an education. It was before civil rights legislation, such as the ADA, Americans with Disability [sic] Act, which brought forward that we have to recognize the full humanity of persons with disabilities. So, this dates way back, and it’s similar to other groups of people in our communities: domestic workers today still don’t have the same rights to health and safety on the job. That dates back to slavery, when it was black women who cleaned the homes, and took care of our children, and made it possible to work outside of the home. So, these are very old, archaic – in cases of the domestic workers, very racist – laws. And they’re still on the books. And we have to fight like hell to change them, so that all of these workplaces – all of these men and women – are treated with the respect that they deserve. So, that’s what we’re up against, but we’ve made a lot of progress on many of these fronts.

SIGMOND: Thank you, Senator. I just want to follow up on this. Now that SB639 will be law on January 1, and we will be phasing out the subminimum wage for people with disabilities here in California over the next three years, what are the options for people who have been employed under these conditions?

SEN. DURAZO: Ending the subminimum wage does not end employment opportunities, and that’s got to be really clear. It just says: employers have to pay the minimum wage. Over the years, we know that there are less employers using the 14(c) certificates. There are less individuals being paid the subminimum wage. We know we’re going in the right direction. It’ll be hard. It’ll still be a push, but we know we’re going in the right direction.

But there’s so many other opportunities: alternative employment, services options. Just to give an example, there’s individual supported employment, where a person works independently on the job but might need a coach to assist with certain responsibilities. And the DOR [Department of Rehabilitation] does provide initial funding for job coaches. There’s paid internship programs. We hear about internships all the time, paid internships programs. There’s apprenticeships. There’s self-employment. There’s so many opportunities on self-employment. And many sectors that I mentioned in our community, like women: women-owned businesses. We have the Dreamers – the undocumented immigrant youth – who are you know starting up their businesses. So, self-employment, I think, is another big opportunity. Group placements, where you can work with other individuals with a coach on the job.

And there’s others: going back to education, more education, post-secondary education. And then there are things that many of us throughout the community do: volunteer. Volunteer programs… That’s something that should be opened up as well. And then, of course, there are some with more severe issues. Programs that are open with one-on-ones for them as well. So, the main thing is we are committed to individuals with disabilities to have meaningful days through all of these options without exploitation.

PACHECO: That was California State Senator María Elena Durazo, talking about the bill she introduced, SB639, which was just signed by Governor Gavin Newsom last Monday. SB639 will phase out 14(c) certificates over the next three years.

We’re now joined by Jessica Grove, Assistant Deputy Director of the Vocational Rehabilitation Employment Division at the California Department of Rehabilitation. In her role at DOR, Jessica manages the statewide vocational rehabilitation programs, which help people with disabilities find and keep jobs. Jessica has a Master’s degree in vocational rehabilitation counseling, as well as a Bachelor’s degree in Deaf Studies and American Sign Language. She has been with DOR since 2010.

SIGMOND: Jessica identifies as an individual with a psychiatric disability and is open about her disability, paving the way for mental health disabilities to be more widely accepted in our society. Jessica Grove, it is an honor to have you here on Disability Rap. I want to begin by asking you to briefly describe the vocational rehabilitation programs at DOR.

JESSICA GROVE: So, Department of Rehabilitation is really about independence, equality, and employment for persons with disabilities. Oftentimes, people hear, “rehabilitation,” and they assume that it’s specific to either individuals like myself who have a substance use disorder, or perhaps that it has something to do with corrections and rehabilitation. It’s really not. It’s really about working with persons with disabilities who may have barriers to employment, and helping the individual to decide what it is that they want to do – what they want to pursue as far as employment. It can be about obtaining employment. It could be about retaining employment

So, maybe I’m a person with a disability and I’m working already and things are changing in the office place. Maybe we’re moving to a virtual space instead and I need to get some supports and some training around how to make that shift. Maybe I want to advance in employment. Maybe I see an opportunity to gain additional skills that would put me in a position for promotion or leaving my current situation and going for something at a higher level.

So, those are really the focuses of Department of Rehabilitation and the services that we provide across the state. There’s approximately 85 offices and about 1400 staff that work directly in support of individuals who are seeking services from the Department. The services can really vary and it’s very individualized to the person. So, I often get questions about: well, is this particular disability one that would be eligible for services with the Department? It’s really not about a disability category. It’s about the individual and their functioning and how that would influence the work that they’re interested in doing. So, there’s a lot of latitude around what exactly we can support, but it’s all in in an effort to reach that employment goal.

We also have a very large focus on working with students with disabilities. So, that means somebody with a disability that’s involved in an education system, and it can be a wide variety of education systems. It doesn’t have to be traditional school. And what we can offer there are services around skills you’ll need to develop future employment. So that could include career exploration, job exploration. It can include work readiness skills to include job shadowing. Paid work experience is something that we offer for students with disabilities. Self-advocacy and then also counseling in post-secondary and technical education.

PACHECO: Jessica, thinking about the passing of SB639, could you tell us a little bit more specifically around how DOR is enhancing access to competitive integrated employment for everyone with disabilities, including those folks with intellectual or developmental disabilities that may have previously been employed with a subminimum wage job?

GROVE: So, Department of Rehabilitation has worked for a number of years with our partners on the Competitive Integrated Employment (CIE) Blueprint. So those partners are education and the Department of Developmental Services, which is involved with the regional center system. And so, we’ve been working in tandem to provide what we call career counseling and information and referral to individuals who may be working in non-integrated settings and in some cases who are or have been receiving less than minimum wage.

And so, with the passage of SB639, we’re really excited to continue that work and to expand it for individuals who again may be coming out of a non-integrated setting and who are interested perhaps in learning more about the opportunities for community-based employment, which is really our focus. It’s the community-based employment.

But another focus is that, we also have to serve business, right? We have a dual customer. So, it’s the individuals. It’s the talent side, developing the individuals for those employment opportunities, but it’s also developing businesses’ understanding of persons with disabilities as an untapped talent pool, right?

So, we have to serve both. We can do all sorts of exciting things, like work with partners to develop training programs that are specific to the need of an in-demand industry or a business sector that has a lot of growth. So, there’s a lot that we’re trying to do around understanding businesses’ needs so we can better prepare the individuals to be successful at that business and to help business expand their understanding of what people with disabilities can do. Because oftentimes, someone without a disability or without the awareness of disability – and the range – pictures, like, oh, well a person with a disability couldn’t do this job. From their frame, sure, but we know it’s not that complicated. Like, let us help you with this space. This isn’t going to be such a challenge to you, and not only that, but it’s going to be a benefit to your business. How can we change the story about disability that you should hire a person with a disability, not because of the social good – although that’s awesome – but because of the profitability that it can represent for your business, right?

There’s market share to be had in the disability world. We cross all categories of diversity, right? So, you want to target an age a certain demographic? People with disabilities are in that space. And I see it as an untapped resource for business around opportunity for competitive advantage.

SIGMOND: Thank you, Jessica. I’m wondering if you could tell us a little about your own background as a person with a disability getting employment, because that is what we’re talking about.

GROVE: So, you introduced me as a person with a psychiatric disability, and I specifically use that term, although I know that there’s a lot of people [who] identify in many different ways. So, behavioral health disability may be something that you’ll hear. For myself, I use psychiatric disability, because when I finally started talking about it openly at work, I really wanted to remove the stigma from that.

I have depression and a history of substance use disorder. So, for me, I was really struggling. I was coming up on the age of 35 and I found myself stuck. And I could not change the behaviors. I could not change how I felt and honestly did not want to keep living. And for whatever reason, I decided I would give one last attempt at seeing if there was something that could help me change, and a piece of that was employment for me.

And what I found at work was: I’m also funny and I’m also really good at looking for ways to be more efficient. I was really awesome at customer service. And I started to learn about, like, not only what are my strengths, but also how my disability really is kind of a bit of a superpower, too.

When I got to Department of Rehab, I decided I was not going to talk about my disability as the first thing. And as I moved from position to position in the Department, because I felt I wanted to grow and continue to contribute on different levels, I saw more and more people coming out publicly, sharing their experience as a person with a psychiatric disability. And it bothered me more and more that I was contributing to the stigma if I wasn’t willing to talk about it.

At the Department of Rehabilitation, I was given the opportunity to talk about it at an all staff call, and share my experience, and raise my hand and say: when you’re talking about individuals who have a substance use disorder, you’re talking about me. The number of people that reached out to me and said that they have family members or they themselves experience –

PACHECO: Me, too.

GROVE: – right. Yeah, I mean, it was really powerful. And I felt so incredibly honored to be in the position I’m in and have the opportunity to let people know that they’re not alone. I mean, we’re in the majority in some instances. Individuals with disabilities are there in every way and walk in life and you don’t necessarily know what someone else’s experience is.

PACHECO: That was Jessica Grove, Assistant Deputy Director of the Vocational Rehabilitation Employment Division at the California Department of Rehabilitation. Earlier in the show, we were joined by California State Senator María Elena Durazo of Los Angeles, who introduced SB639, a bill to phase out subminimum wage labor laws for people with developmental disabilities here in California. SB639 was just signed by Governor Gavin Newsom last Monday, September 27.

And that does it for this show, which was produced and edited by Carl Sigmond. Special thanks to Courtney Williams for her support. To listen to this show again, go to or wherever you get your podcasts. I’m Carly Pacheco with Carl Sigmond for another edition of Disability Rap.