Department of Labor May Raise Wages for Disabled Federal Contractors, After All

Mike Elk

U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez said the administration is examining its position on 14(c) programs. (Lonnie Tague for the United States Department of Justice / Wikimedia Commons)

Last week, In These Times broke the news that Obama’s exec­u­tive order rais­ing the min­i­mum wage to $10.10 an hour for fed­er­al con­trac­tors would not apply to the thou­sands of dis­abled work­ers who cur­rent­ly make sub­min­i­mum wages — some as low as pen­nies an hour — under 14© pro­grams.” Now, In These Times has learned that the Depart­ment of Labor is exam­in­ing its posi­tion on this subject.

In a Tues­day morn­ing inter­view on the Diane Rehm Show on Wash­ing­ton, D.C.’s WAMU, U.S. Sec­re­tary of Labor Thomas Perez referred to 14©—an exemp­tion in the Fair Labor Stan­dards Act that excludes work­ers with dis­abil­i­ties from min­i­mum-wage pro­tec­tions if they are employed in cer­ti­fied train­ing pro­grams — as a pro­vi­sion of law that real­ly has worked to the detri­ment of peo­ple with disabilities.”

“[That is] one of the issues that we are exam­in­ing right now as we pre­pare to final­ize the exec­u­tive order,” he continued.

Perez’s state­ment fol­lows a let­ter issued by more than 25 civ­il rights, dis­abil­i­ty and labor orga­ni­za­tions call­ing on the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion to elim­i­nate the use of sub­min­i­mum wage for fed­er­al con­trac­tors. All employ­ees of fed­er­al con­trac­tors should mean all employ­ees, regard­less of dis­abil­i­ty sta­tus,” the let­ter read. We believe … that it is both eco­nom­i­cal­ly sound and moral­ly just to ensure that peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties have access to the same wage pro­tec­tions as those without.”

Some dis­abil­i­ty advo­cates main­tain that jobs pay­ing sub­min­i­mum wages under 14© — known as shel­tered work­shops” — must exist in order to give dis­abled peo­ple employ­ment opportunities. 

Oth­ers, how­ev­er, argue that sev­er­al states have phased out the use of shel­tered work­shops with few ill effects. In 2003, for exam­ple, Ver­mont elim­i­nat­ed such pro­grams alto­geth­er. Instead, the state focused on pro­vid­ing train­ing, sup­port and tran­si­tion ser­vices to peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties and their employ­ers. Today, 40 per­cent of Ver­mon­ters with dis­abil­i­ties are employed in inte­grat­ed employ­ment” jobs, com­pared to less than 20 per­cent of work­ers with dis­abil­i­ties nationwide.

Advo­cates say that if the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion were to elim­i­nate 14© pro­grams for fed­er­al con­trac­tors, state and local gov­ern­ments might fol­low a sim­i­lar course. In the mean­time, they say, they’re heart­ened by the unprece­dent­ed lev­el of sup­port they’re receiv­ing from oth­er orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing groups such as the Amer­i­can Civ­il Lib­er­ties Union. 

I think the real sto­ry here is how the civ­il rights com­mu­ni­ty is weigh­ing in … on the side of the dis­abled,” says Ari Né’eman, pres­i­dent of the Autis­tic Self Advo­ca­cy Net­work. This is cre­at­ing new ground to engage the broad­er civ­il rights com­mu­ni­ty on dis­abil­i­ty issues.”

14© work­ers can and should do pro­duc­tive work,” says Susan Mizn­er of the ACLU. They should be paid a liv­ing wage, just as every work­er should be paid a liv­ing wage. This goes to prin­ci­ples of equi­ty and fair­ness — issues that are at the core of the 14th Amend­ment and key to all civ­il rights movements.” 

At the moment, it’s unclear what Obama’s next move will be in terms of rais­ing min­i­mum wage across the board. But Né’eman reports that there are active con­ver­sa­tions tak­ing place between the fed­er­al admin­is­tra­tion and dis­abil­i­ty advocates.

This is an issue of fun­da­men­tal equi­ty for dis­abled work­ers,” says Né’eman. In the com­ing weeks, we will be work­ing to send a clear mes­sage to the admin­is­tra­tion that the time for action is now. Twen­ty-four years after the ADA, dis­abled work­ers deserve a fair deal.”

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Work­ing In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is cur­rent­ly a labor reporter at Politico.
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