Obama’s Wage Hike For Federal Contractors Won’t Apply to Disabled Workers

Mike Elk

President Obama delivers the State of the Union address on January 28. (Larry Downing/AFP/Getty Images)

In his State of the Union address on Tues­day, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma announced that he would issue an exec­u­tive order rais­ing the min­i­mum wage to $10.10 for work­ers employed on fed­er­al con­tracts. The order has yet to be issued, so it’s unclear exact­ly how many and what type of work­ers will be cov­ered. How­ev­er, one group is already slat­ed for exclu­sion: work­ers in a spe­cial gov­ern­ment con­tract­ing pro­gram for peo­ple with disabilities.

Ari Né’eman, pres­i­dent of the Autis­tic Self Advo­ca­cy Net­work, says that dis­abil­i­ty advo­cates were informed on a con­fer­ence call Wednes­day with Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Biden and Sec­re­tary of Labor Thomas Perez that Obama’s exec­u­tive order will not apply to fed­er­al con­trac­tors that use 14© pro­grams” — in which work­ers with dis­abil­i­ties are paid sub­min­i­mum wages.

Under the 14© exemp­tion in the Fair Labor Stan­dards Act, work­ers with dis­abil­i­ties are exclud­ed from min­i­mum-wage pro­tec­tions if they are employed in cer­ti­fied train­ing pro­grams. Though there is no offi­cial gov­ern­ment data on the size of these pro­grams, the Nation­al Coun­cil on Dis­abil­i­ties esti­mates that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment employs thou­sands of work­ers under 14©. Nation­wide, approx­i­mate­ly 420,000 dis­abled Amer­i­cans are employed in 14© pro­grams coor­di­nat­ed through fed­er­al, state and local gov­ern­ments, and legal­ly paid below the min­i­mum, with some only mak­ing pen­nies per hour.

As Work­ing In These Times report­ed last March, deep divi­sions remain with­in the dis­abil­i­ty com­mu­ni­ty and even among top Con­gres­sion­al Democ­rats over whether dis­abled work­ers employed in 14© pro­grams should be paid below the min­i­mum wage. Some dis­abil­i­ty advo­cates — led by ACC­SES, which rep­re­sents employ­ers of dis­abled work­ers under the 14© pro­grams — claim that these pro­grams pro­vide valu­able train­ing to help tran­si­tion peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties into jobs, and that a min­i­mum wage require­ment would make that mis­sion impossible.

Oth­er advo­cates, how­ev­er, say that the pro­grams don’t pro­vide mean­ing­ful train­ing and rarely lead to out­side jobs. A 2001 study by the fed­er­al Gen­er­al Account­abil­i­ty Office (GAO) found that only 5 per­cent of work­ers employed in 14©-sheltered work­place pro­grams left to take reg­u­lar inte­grat­ed employ­ment” jobs. These crit­ics say the pro­grams con­tribute to the well-doc­u­ment­ed cycle of pover­ty for those with dis­abil­i­ties: Accord­ing to the Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics, a per­son with a dis­abil­i­ty is three times as like­ly to live in pover­ty as a per­son with­out a disability.

On Thurs­day, the Nation­al Coun­cil on Dis­abil­i­ty (NCD), an inde­pen­dent fed­er­al advi­so­ry board, issued a state­ment on Thurs­day after­noon blast­ing the Oba­ma administration’s deci­sion to exempt work­ers with dis­abil­i­ties from the min­i­mum-wage increase.

Accord­ing to the Nation­al Coun­cil on Disability’s 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 … If the admin­is­tra­tion agrees with this prin­ci­ple and wants to stamp out income inequal­i­ty for all Amer­i­cans, includ­ing Amer­i­cans with dis­abil­i­ties, we urge you to recon­sid­er what was shared on yesterday’s White House con­fer­ence call and explic­it­ly state in the Exec­u­tive Order that the increase in the min­i­mum wage for employ­ees of fed­er­al con­trac­tors applies to all employ­ees of fed­er­al con­trac­tors, includ­ing thou­sands of Amer­i­cans with dis­abil­i­ties who are cur­rent­ly being paid less than min­i­mum wage under the Sec­tion 14© program.”

The White House did not respond to a request for com­ment. Accord­ing to Né’eman of the Autis­tic Self Advo­ca­cy Net­work, offi­cials told him on Wednesday’s con­fer­ence that the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion believes it doesn’t have the author­i­ty to raise the wages of 14© workers.

The Autis­tic Self Advo­ca­cy Net­work dis­putes this claim. In a legal memo put out Thurs­day, it con­cludes that pay­ment of sub­min­i­mum wages to con­tract and sub-con­tract work­ers with dis­abil­i­ties is not required by statute [but] is left to the direc­tion of the Depart­ment of Labor…As a result, to the extent that the pres­i­dent enjoys the author­i­ty to direct exec­u­tive agen­cies to set a min­i­mum wage for work­ers on all fed­er­al con­tracts, he may also direct those agen­cies to elim­i­nate sub­min­i­mum wage pay­ment of con­tract work­ers with disabilities.”

To Né’eman, the administration’s deci­sion makes no sense. We think they [have the author­i­ty] and hope our analy­sis will con­vince them,” he wrote in an email to Work­ing In These Times. If the admin­is­tra­tion has the pow­er to raise the wages of work­ers with­out dis­abil­i­ties employed by gov­ern­ment con­trac­tors, they have the pow­er to do the same for work­ers with dis­abil­i­ties. There is no statute requir­ing gov­ern­ment con­trac­tors to pay less than min­i­mum wage to 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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