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.”