A 27-year-old disabled woman said she worked two years as an unpaid volunteer at a Makiki clothing store with the hopes of getting a job there some day. Now, the U.S. Labor Department is looking into whether federal wage laws were violated.
Jessica Albertson has Asperger's Syndrome, a highly functional form of autism. She lives on her own and is in charge of her own finances.
In 2013, Jessica was placed as a volunteer at Plato's Closet, a used clothing store in Makiki. She said she rode the Handi-Van three days a week from her apartment in Kailua to the Makiki store, where she worked with a job coach who helped provide her with vocational skills.
"(I was) like very upset because I've been there two years and never once got paid -- except maybe around Christmas time I got a gift certificate from the store but that's it," Albertson said.
Jessica's grandmother said the company that placed her, Health Resources, told her they would try to get Jessica hired at the store or somewhere else. But that never happened.
"I said I thought this contract or whatever it was was supposed to last just a year. I said how much longer is it going to take to find her a job," said Su Lui, Jessica's grandmother.
With the help of her job coach, Kasey Shreve, Jessica and her grandmother filed a complaint with the U.S. Labor Department. Shreve said Health Resources asked them to drop the case.
"They kept reminding Jessica that you're going to lose your housing, you're going to be homeless," said Shreve.
Health Resources declined comment.
Suzanne Green, owner of Plato's Closet, said she was unaware of the arrangement between Health Resources and Albertson. She said she was doing Health Resources a favor by providing on-the-job training for the disabled.
Green added that she couldn't hire Jessica because she couldn't operate a cash register.
But Shreve questioned that explanation.
"My response to that was: Did anybody try to show her how to use the cash register and her response back to me was no," Shreve said.
One legal expert said a volunteer arrangement lasting two years is unusual.
Typically, when a disabled person works for anything less than the minimum wage, the company must get a waiver known as a sub minimum wage certificate from the federal or state government, said Louis Erteschik, executive director of the Hawaii Disability Rights Center.
Under these waivers, employers have to monitor the worker and document their progress.
Erteschik said there have been abuses in the past, he said.
"When you're dealing with someone who has a disability, there's a huge potential that the employer is taking advantage of that situation," he said.
As for Albertson, she has since quit her volunteer job in July and recently was hired as a dishwasher at Kailua's Uahi Island Grill. Today, she received her first paycheck from the company.
"She does a great job. We're glad to have her and we're glad she's a part of Uahi Island crew," said Michael Benskin, the restaurant's sous chef.