Top Democrats Differ On Ending Subminimum Wage For Workers With Disabilities

Mike Elk

Democratic Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin (speaking here in December in defense of Medicaid) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif) announced last week a proposal to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10. But will people with disabilities be left out?

In his State of the Union address ear­li­er this year, Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma called for increas­ing the min­i­mum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9 an hour. On Tues­day, Con­gres­sion­al Democ­rats did him one bet­ter, unveil­ing a plan to raise the min­i­mum wage to $10.10 an hour, as well as raise the sub­min­i­mum wage for tipped work­ers from $2.13 an hour to 70 per­cent of the min­i­mum wage.

Their pro­pos­al, how­ev­er, would not cov­er the 420,000 Amer­i­cans with dis­abil­i­ties who are cur­rent­ly paid a sub­min­i­mum wage of as lit­tle as a few cents per hour in some state-spon­sored shel­tered work­shops,” such as Good­will. These pro­grams, licensed under pro­vi­sion 14c of the Fair Labor Stan­dards Act of 1938, are intend­ed to be for train­ing, but many work­ers wind up as per­pet­u­al trainees,” employed in shel­tered work­shops for years earn­ing sub­min­im­i­um wage rates; thus becom­ing stuck in a cycle of pover­ty. While advo­cates have repeat­ed­ly tried to address this issue divides with­in both the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty and the dis­abil­i­ty com­mu­ni­ty have so far pre­vent­ed these laws from being sen­si­bly revised.

Many advo­cates for the dis­abled have called for the 14c pro­vi­sion to be elim­i­nat­ed, sug­gest­ing that hav­ing Amer­i­cans with dis­abil­i­ties work in shel­tered work­places often run by non­prof­its or the state can cause as many prob­lems as it solves.

There are two big prob­lems,” says Barb Trad­er, exec­u­tive direc­tor of TASH, an inter­na­tion­al advo­ca­cy group for per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties. One is that they are seg­re­gat­ed from soci­ety for­ev­er when they are in a shel­tered work­shop. The rest of us make friends and col­leagues through our work. Work real­ly defines so much of who we are. The oth­er prob­lem is life­long pover­ty because there is no way these peo­ple are going to be able to achieve any type of suf­fi­cien­cy economically.”

In addi­tion to the seg­re­ga­tion and pover­ty engen­dered by shel­tered work­places, many advo­cates say work­ers with dis­abil­i­ties often face exploita­tion. In 2009, Iowa shut down a bunkhouse” – essen­tial­ly, a shed – where 60 men with dis­abil­i­ties employed by the meat proces­sor Hen­ry Turkey Ser­vices were forced to sleep. The bunkhouse was unheat­ed, poor­ly insu­lat­ed and infest­ed with cock­roach­es. The com­pa­ny deduct­ed $10,000 a week from the pay­checks of the work­ers housed in the bunkhouse.

Aside from the deplorable hous­ing con­di­tions, the 60 work­ers with dis­abil­i­ties were paid only $0.41 an hour to work along­side abled work­ers who were earn­ing between $9 and $12 an hour. Since work­ers with dis­abil­i­ties are often employed in jobs that would nor­mal­ly pay min­i­mum wage, many in orga­nized labor have called for the sub­min­i­mum wages for work­ers with dis­abil­i­ties to be repealed.

Over 100,000 SEIU mem­bers sup­port peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties so they can live ful­fill­ing lives as part of their com­mu­ni­ties,” says SEIU spokesper­son Arvil Smith. We believe the well-being of work­ers and the peo­ple our mem­bers sup­port are inex­tri­ca­bly linked. These val­ues inform SEIU mem­bers’ com­mit­ment to end­ing wage dis­crim­i­na­tion against work­ers with dis­abil­i­ties. Equal pay for equal work is a mat­ter of basic fair­ness. That means no per­son with a dis­abil­i­ty who wish­es to work should be denied the assis­tance they need to secure employ­ment in the gen­er­al work­force at min­i­mum wage or higher.”

In addi­tion to labor unions and some dis­abil­i­ty groups, the inde­pen­dent fed­er­al agency the Nation­al Coun­cil on Dis­abil­i­ty (NCD) has called for phas­ing out the 14c exemp­tion of the min­i­mum wage law.

In 2010, sta­tis­tics released by the U.S. Cen­sus Bureau revealed that near­ly 28 per­cent of Amer­i­cans with dis­abil­i­ties aged 18 to 64 live in pover­ty,” read a state­ment by the NCD released after Pres­i­dent Obama’s State of the Union address. Today, hun­dreds of thou­sands of Amer­i­cans with dis­abil­i­ties earn less than min­i­mum wage under a lit­tle-known rel­ic of employ­ment pol­i­cy that assumed peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties were not capa­ble of mean­ing­ful, com­pet­i­tive employment.”

Despite this oppo­si­tion, clos­ing the loop­hole for work­ers with dis­abil­i­ties does not appear to be on the table in talks about rais­ing the min­i­mum wage. The ten­sion was on dis­play Tues­day when Sen. Tom Harkin (D‑Iowa), chair­man of the Sen­ate Health, Edu­ca­tion, Labor, and Pen­sion (HELP) com­mit­tee, and Rep. George Miller (D‑Calif.), senior Demo­c­ra­t­ic mem­ber of the House Com­mit­tee on Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force, intro­duced their bill to increase the min­i­mum wage. Asked whether the exemp­tion for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties should be repealed, Rep. Miller said, We should expect that to be part of this debate. It always is.” He added that he agreed with the NCD’s stance. 

Sen. Harkin, how­ev­er, does not agree. Philo­soph­i­cal­ly, Sen. Harkin would pre­fer that no per­son be paid less than min­i­mum wage under any cir­cum­stances, but he has heard from a num­ber of advo­cates for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties that elim­i­nat­ing the sub­min­i­mum wage option with­out hav­ing a real plan to cre­ate sus­tain­able employ­ment alter­na­tives would be detri­men­tal to Amer­i­cans with dis­abil­i­ties cur­rent­ly work­ing in 14© set­tings,” wrote Alli­son Preiss, spokesper­son for Sen. Harkin, in an email to Work­ing In These Times fol­low­ing the Tues­day announce­ment. Sen. Harkin is try­ing to change the sub­min­i­mum wage pro­gram so that young peo­ple are not tracked into sub­min­i­mum wage jobs with­out hav­ing a chance to expe­ri­ence com­pet­i­tive, inte­grat­ed employ­ment; and he’s work­ing to pro­mote upward mobil­i­ty for peo­ple in those programs.”

One of the dis­abil­i­ty advo­cates opposed to the change is Bob­by Sil­ver­stein, Harkin’s for­mer top dis­abil­i­ty staffer. Sil­ver­stein now works as a lob­by­ist for ACC­SES, a coali­tion of non­prof­it groups that employ dis­abled workers.

Would you hire some­body who is work­ing at 30 per­cent and not meet­ing pro­duc­tiv­i­ty goals?” Sil­ver­stein asks rhetor­i­cal­ly. What if some­body is not capa­ble with or with­out an accom­mo­da­tion of work­ing at a reg­u­lar job? Should we force them into a reha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­gram with no work or sit at home and watch TV? If you elim­i­nat­ed 14c, you would lose the oppor­tu­ni­ty for these peo­ple to be trained to be employed.”

But oth­er advo­cates say that there is lit­tle evi­dence that 14c-shel­tered work­places actu­al­ly help work­ers with dis­abil­i­ties obtain jobs with stan­dard wages. A 2001 study by the fed­er­al Gen­er­al Account­abil­i­ty Office (GAO) found that only 5 per­cent of work­ers employed in 14c-shel­tered work­place pro­grams left to take reg­u­lar inte­grat­ed employ­ment” jobs. They often point to Ver­mont, which elim­i­nat­ed 14c-shel­tered work­place pro­grams in 2003 and focused instead on pro­vid­ing wrap-around tran­si­tion and job coach­ing ser­vices to dis­abled peo­ple and their employ­ers so they could main­tain reg­u­lar jobs. Today, 40 per­cent of Ver­mon­ters with dis­abil­i­ties are employed in inte­grat­ed employ­ment” jobs, com­pared to only 20 per­cent of work­ers with dis­abil­i­ties nationwide.

Dis­abil­i­ty advo­cates say that the real rea­son why groups like ACC­SES sup­port main­tain­ing the 14c exemp­tion is that they ben­e­fit finan­cial­ly from it. For instance, the CEO of Good­will, one of the biggest employ­ers of peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, makes more than $500,000 each year while some blind Good­will work­ers are paid only $1.44 an hour.

I think it has a lot to do with mon­ey,” says Trad­er. For ACC­SES, it is about their busi­ness strat­e­gy. There is not an argu­ment in the research or among the self-advo­ca­cy com­mu­ni­ty for con­tin­u­ing the 14c pro­gram. Peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties are say­ing close those things down and divert the mon­ey into more pro­duc­tive ways of sup­port­ing peo­ple in get­ting real jobs.”

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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