Duggan et al. v. Adelante Development Center, Inc.
Adelante Development Center, based in New Mexico, portrays itself as a corporate Good Samaritan, employing people with disabilities who would otherwise not be able to find jobs while providing a wide range of services to its private and governmental customers. For example, its Mailing and Fulfillment Center processes nearly all mail sent from state government agencies to recipients of public assistance programs throughout the state of New Mexico. It also boasts thousands of customers for its document imaging and destruction services, in addition to offering janitorial contracts under its Facility Support Services program. Adelante also packaged lipsticks that were included in swag bags handed out to attendees of the 2018 Academy Awards. However, this public face obscures discriminatory workplace practices against Adelante’s employees with disabilities.
Public Justice is co-counsel on a class action complaint, representing Adelante employees Tammy Duggan, Efren Romero, and Angie Valdez, against Adelante, to fight these practices. Adelante hires workers with disabilities at a profit, while paying them subminimum wages. While similar workplaces pay at least $9.20 an hour for the type of document imaging and destruction work that Adelante’s workers with disabilities perform, Adelante pays its employees less than half as much. Meanwhile, Adelante collects payments from the state’s Human Services Department for each hour that some of its employees work, funds that are supposed to be used to facilitate active participation of people with developmental disabilities in the community.
Adelante supervisors make no secret of this connection, encouraging Tammy Duggan and her coworkers not to miss work by telling them, “If you’re not here, Tammy, we don’t get paid.” Meanwhile, the jobs at Adelante do not actually promote community involvement, with most employees working alongside only other disabled workers in so-called “sheltered workshops”, for years with little if any opportunity for advancement to positions of greater responsibility.
While Adelante claims that its sheltered workshops offer people with disabilities a chance to learn skills in a rehabilitative environment that will prepare them for other jobs in the community, in reality Adelante workers with disabilities perform rote, repetitive tasks in a setting where they are isolated and entirely segregated from the broader community. Thus, Adelante profits twice off the labor of its employees with disabilities—once by undercutting competitors in the document imaging and shredding market who pay their workers above minimum wage, and again by pocketing state funds that are linked to providing rehabilitation and job training services that Adelante does not in fact provide.
Adelante argues that it complies with federal law because it is legal to pay workers with disabilities less than minimum wage under section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which was created in the 1930s as a way to provide charity to those with disabilities seen as unable to participate in the mainstream workforce. In the wake of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, several states, including Maryland and New Hampshire, have banned subminimum wages; others have stopped contracting with companies who pay their workers under the federal 14(c) program. In New Mexico, where Adelante is located, requires by law that companies who pay workers with disabilities a subminimum wage apply for a state certificate, in addition to the federal 14(c) certificate. Adelante has never gotten that certificate. The complaint includes claims under the New Mexico Minimum Wage Act and the Albuquerque minimum wage ordinance, and seeks back wages as well as an injunction requiring Adelante to stop paying subminimum wages to its workers.
Cartwright-Baron Senior Attorney Karla Gilbride has been researching the legal issues associated with subminimum wage employment for several years, since before coming to Public Justice, and believes that seeking fair pay for some of the most exploited and underpaid workers in America is at the core of our mission of protecting the poor and the powerless. She is excited to be working on the case with a committed group of local advocates, including Tim Gardener and Joe Turk from Disability Rights New Mexico, as well as David Seligman and Catherine Ordonez of Towards Justice and Brandt Milstein of the Law Offices of Brandt Milstein in Denver, Colorado.