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GiGi's Playhouse gala shines light on wage discrimination against Down syndrome workers

A call to action was issued at the annual GiGi's Playhouse fundraising gala.
Kayla McKeon

Hundreds of generous people packed The Depot in Minneapolis to show their support for individuals with Down syndrome at the recent GiGi's Playhouse "I Have a Voice" gala.

It was a night filled with amazing moments and successful fundraising, but also one with a serious message delivered by none other than keynote speaker Kayla McKeon, the first Capitol Hill lobbyist with Down syndrome.

She is fighting to overturn what has been dubbed "Law Syndrome," a series of antiquated federal laws that prevents people with Down syndrome and other disabilities being paid the minimum wage without losing access to benefits like Medicaid.

It can result in a person with Down syndrome being paid just $1-an-hour for doing the same job to the same standard as a person without disabilities, who receives at least the federal minimum wage.

If a disabled person isn't able to perform tasks as well as a non-disabled worker, they can be paid even less.

"Down syndrome doesn't stop us. It never stops us. It's just some antiquated laws that hold us back," said McKeon.

"People like me are getting paid pennies per hour while other individuals performing the same task are being paid at least minimum wage."

In her role as a lobbyist for the National Down Syndrome Society, McKeon has been pushing for the Transitioning to Integrated and Meaningful Employment Act (TIME) that would promote equal pay for people with disabilities, and help them train and find work.

In Minnesota, employers who hire disabled workers can apply for a subminimum-wage permit, although, as the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry notes, there are limits to how little an employer can pay a disabled worker. 

"A disabled worker has to be paid at least the minimum wage or a percentage thereof, based on the extent to which a worker's performance is limited, but in no case may it fall below 50 percent of the minimum wage. However, to pay less than the minimum wage, the employer must first have on file a subminimum-wage permit for each performance-limited person."

Anyone can text "law syndrome" to 52886 to support McKeon's fair employment goals. You can also enter your details here and your support for the campaign will be forwarded directly to your representative. 

What GiGi's Playhouse does for Minnesota families

GiGi's Playhouse estimates there are 4,000 people with Down syndrome living in the Twin Cities metro area, and the nonprofit plays its role by empowering and equipping these people with the tools they need to be heard and share their voices. 

Fox 9's Jason Matheson led the festivities during the gala. 

Fox 9's Jason Matheson led the festivities during the gala. 

GiGi's made significant leaps in 2018, expanding from its St. Louis Park location to new spaces in Apple Valley and Hudson, Wisconsin. 

The satellite locations will help cut down on travel time for families to attend the many daily classes that GiGi's provides and nobody else does.

In the past, families have had to drive 1-2 hours both ways every day to attend the 25 programs the Playhouse offers. 

And the programs are all free thanks to dozens of volunteers who specialize in math, literacy, cooking, baking, fitness and many areas of growth, and all of them in a safe space where kids and adults with Down syndrome interact. 

More than 700 families utilize free educational, therapeutic and lifestyle programs at GiGi's Playhouse.

To learn more, or to sign up as a volunteer, check out the GiGi's Playhouse website or find GiGi's Playhouse on Facebook. Here's a link to GiGi's Playhouse Twin Cities and a link to GiGi's Playhouse Hudson

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