Albuquerque nonprofit accused of underpaying disabled workers

An Albuquerque nonprofit often praised nationally for giving people with disabilities a place to work is now accused of cheating them out of pay.

A new lawsuit filed by a group of advocates with Disability Rights New Mexico, claims Adelante Development Center is paying far below minimum wage, then pocketing the rest of the money.

“We’ve seen in one of their filings that someone was making 18-cents an hour,” said Joseph Turk, an attorney with Disability Rights New Mexico.

Adelante is a nonprofit that prides itself on being a ‘community resource’ and supporting people with mental and physical disabilities, as well as seniors and ‘disadvantaged’ people.

Turk says they’ve been investigating Adelante for years, and they’re now representing one former and two current Adelante employees who claim they’ve always been underpaid.

“One of them is making about $4 an hour,” said Turk.

The employees in the lawsuit say they work in a “sheltered workshop,” shredding documents and removing staples from paper with their bare hands.

One employee says in the lawsuit, she’s had staples painfully lodged underneath her fingernails at work and “has had to remove oversized staples with pliers.”

“She’s been working there for 17 years and is still not making Albuquerque’s minimum wage,” said Turk.

To pay people with disabilities less than minimum wage, companies need to apply for 14(c) certificates at the federal and state level. Tuck says while Adelante was permitted to pay their employees less than the minimum wage at the federal level, they never applied for a 14(c) at the state level, therefore breaking state law.

“So they’ve been paying sub-minimum wages ever since without state approval,” said Turk.

In documents submitted to the U.S. Department of Labor, Adelante reported all hourly wages paid to their employees.

“A ton of really low numbers,” said Turk.

In the documents, Adelante reported some employees making less than a dollar an hour, while a larger group made around the $2 an hour range. The highest hourly wage reported in these specific documents was $9.03.

“They are entitled to make the bare minimum wage in New Mexico,” said Turk.

In the lawsuit, one employee claims that they were told to not talk about how much they make at Adelante.

“It’s a sign to me that these wages were something, something to keep under wraps,” said Turk.

Turk says these few Adelante employees are coming forward in hopes of helping their co-workers earn a living wage.

“They still have bills to pay, things to take care of food, rent and they are working at a distinct disadvantage,” said Turk.

Attorneys believe Adelante is saving more than $8,000 a day by paying their employees less than minimum wage. The lawsuit is asking Adelante to pay back those wages and pay their employees minimum wage. 

Adelante sent a statement to KRQE News 13:

Adelante is part of a legislative workgroup with Disability Rights NM, parents, and individuals with disabilities considering 14c work opportunities in New Mexico. The workgroup is ongoing and Adelante has been honest and transparent about our work with all disability groups. Adelante has not been served a lawsuit and hasn’t had the opportunity to review the allegations.

Adelante places a priority on competitive community employment and finding jobs for people at other local businesses throughout the state. We are the largest provider of supported employment services for people with disabilities in New Mexico and among the top-ranked providers for Social Security Ticket to Work nationally. Adelante remains committed to the people with disabilities and the families who count on us. – Jill Beets, VP of Marketing and Communication

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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