After Outcry, White House Extends $10.10 Minimum Wage to Some Disabled Workers

Mike Elk

President Obama is set to sign the executive order raising contractors’ wages today. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Ear­li­er this month, Work­ing In These Times broke the news that Obama’s promise to raise the min­i­mum wage to $10.10 an hour for fed­er­al con­trac­tors would not apply to thou­sands of dis­abled work­ers cur­rent­ly receiv­ing sub­min­i­mum wages — some as low as pen­nies an hour — under a spe­cial exemp­tion from the Fair Labor Stan­dards Act known as 14©.

Now, Work­ing In These Times has learned that fol­low­ing pub­lic out­cry from dis­abil­i­ty, civ­il rights and labor orga­ni­za­tions — as well as from Pres­i­dent Obama’s own inde­pen­dent advi­so­ry board, the Nation­al Coun­cil on Dis­abil­i­ty — the admin­is­tra­tion has decid­ed to include some dis­abled work­ers employed in 14© pro­grams in the wage increase.

Pres­i­dent Oba­ma is set to sign the exec­u­tive order rais­ing con­trac­tors’ wages today. Accord­ing to a White House press state­ment released this morn­ing, the order will now ensure that peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties work­ing under ser­vice or con­ces­sions con­tracts with the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment will be cov­ered by the same $10.10 per hour min­i­mum wage protections.” 

Cur­rent­ly, 420,000 dis­abled work­ers nation­wide are mak­ing sub­min­i­mum wages in 14© pro­grams. Dis­abil­i­ty advo­cates say there are no firm sta­tis­tics on how many of these work­ers are employed by gov­ern­ment con­trac­tors, but the num­ber is esti­mat­ed in the thou­sands. The pro­grams are con­tro­ver­sial: While some advo­cates say that they pro­vide valu­able oppor­tu­ni­ties for dis­abled work­ers to learn new skills and even­tu­al­ly get jobs, oth­ers argue that the pro­grams treat dis­abled work­ers as sec­ond-class cit­i­zens and main­tain a sit­u­a­tion in which peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties are three times more like­ly than oth­er Amer­i­can to live in poverty.

Many dis­abil­i­ty advo­cates were out­raged when they learned on a Jan­u­ary 29 con­fer­ence call with the White House that the fed­er­al con­tract­ing wage boost announced in the president’s State of the Union address would not apply to 14© work­ers. The Nation­al Coun­cil on Dis­abil­i­ty (NCD), a pres­i­den­tial­ly appoint­ed inde­pen­dent advi­so­ry board, wrote in a state­ment, NCD believes that the Sec­tion 14© pro­gram is a pol­i­cy rel­ic from the 1930s, when dis­crim­i­na­tion was inevitable because ser­vice sys­tems were based on a char­i­ty mod­el, rather than empow­er­ment and self-deter­mi­na­tion, and when soci­etal low expec­ta­tions for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties col­ored policymaking.”

Last week, a coali­tion of 25 civ­il rights, dis­abil­i­ty and labor orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing the Amer­i­can Civ­il Lib­er­ties Union, the AFL-CIO and the Autis­tic Self-Advo­ca­cy Net­work, joined the dis­sent, issu­ing a let­ter stat­ing that, All employ­ees of fed­er­al con­trac­tors should mean all employ­ees, regard­less of dis­abil­i­ty sta­tus. 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.”

One dis­abil­i­ty advo­ca­cy group, how­ev­er, defend­ed the exemp­tion. Ter­ry R. Farmer, exec­u­tive direc­tor of ACC­SES, a coali­tion rep­re­sent­ing employ­ers of dis­abled work­ers and a long­time sup­port­er of 14© pro­grams, wrote in a Feb­ru­ary 5 let­ter to the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, There are hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties nation­wide who are pro­tect­ed from job loss by the abil­i­ty to pay them based on their pro­duc­tiv­i­ty lev­els. Elim­i­nat­ing the com­men­su­rate wage would like­ly result in indi­vid­u­als with sig­nif­i­cant dis­abil­i­ties receiv­ing no pay what­so­ev­er instead of a wage that is com­men­su­rate with their pro­duc­tiv­i­ty; con­se­quent­ly deny­ing them the tan­gi­ble as well as the intan­gi­ble ben­e­fits of work.”

How­ev­er, the coali­tion of labor, dis­abil­i­ty and civ­il-rights groups dis­putes ACC­SES’ argu­ment that pay­ing dis­abled work­ers a high­er wage will cost them jobs. In its let­ter, the coali­tion point­ed to the exam­ple of Ver­mont, which elim­i­nat­ed 14© pro­grams in 2003. Ver­mont invest­ed in the mon­ey in wrap­around ser­vices to help work­ers tran­si­tion into reg­u­lar employ­ment, known as inte­grat­ed employ­ment,” instead of 14© jobs. Now, 40 per­cent of Ver­mon­ters with dis­abil­i­ties are employed in inte­grat­ed employ­ment” jobs, com­pared to less than 20 per­cent of work­ers with dis­abil­i­ties nationwide. 

The advo­cates who crit­i­cized the omis­sion hailed the White House­’s state­ment this morn­ing as a par­tial vic­to­ry. How­ev­er, they stress that the exec­u­tive order will cov­er only dis­abled work­ers in ser­vice and con­ces­sions jobs, not those engaged in pro­duc­tion of goods. Accord­ing to Alli­son Wohl, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the dis­abil­i­ty advo­ca­cy group Col­lab­o­ra­tion to Pro­mote Self-Deter­mi­na­tion, The major­i­ty of work­ers being paid less than min­i­mum wage are on prod­uct man­u­fac­tur­ing con­tracts, so the impact is min­i­mal to these indi­vid­u­als. How­ev­er, the man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor is shrink­ing. In the long-term, this sends the right message.”

It is unclear why the admin­is­tra­tion exclud­ed cer­tain groups of dis­abled work­ers. The White House did not return Work­ing in These Times’ request for com­ment. How­ev­er, the White House did invite two young activists who led the charge for the inclu­sion of dis­abled work­ers in the exec­u­tive order to the sign­ing cer­e­mo­ny: Wohl and Autis­tic Self Advo­ca­cy Net­work Pres­i­dent Ari Né’eman.

Né’eman, the first open­ly autis­tic nom­i­nee to gain Sen­ate approval for a seat on the Nation­al Coun­cil of Dis­abil­i­ty, told Work­ing In These Times that the exec­u­tive order sig­nals a step toward the elim­i­na­tion of 14© pro­grams for all work­ers at the fed­er­al, state and local level.

We applaud Pres­i­dent Oba­ma and Sec­re­tary Perez for demon­strat­ing their com­mit­ment to equal­i­ty and eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty for work­ers with dis­abil­i­ties, and hope the admin­is­tra­tion will join us in fight­ing in Con­gress for the ulti­mate repeal of Sec­tion 14©,” says Né’e­man. This is a sig­nif­i­cant step for­ward for work­ers with disabilities.”

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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