Commentary Economic Justice

The Subminimum Wage Is on the Chopping Block. Why Are Some Seeking to Preserve It? (Updated)

Rebecca Cokley

The truth is that subminimum wages reinforce a culture built on the idea that disabled people must be isolated and kept from society—whether to keep them safe, or because they're perceived as dangerous.

UPDATE, July 18, 12:15 p.m.: The House approved the Raise the Wage Act Thursday in a largely party-line vote, with the language ending the subminimum wage intact.

The U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote Thursday on HR 582, the Raise the Wage Act. A long time in the making, the bill does a number of things, including raising the minimum wage in the United States to $15. The Congressional Budget Office ran the numbers, and if the bill is signed into law, up to 27 million workers could get a raise. That 27 million includes around 420,000 people with disabilities who are paid a subminimum wage thanks to a loophole in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

While the FLSA was a game-changer for the U.S. workforce eight decades ago, it created a ceiling for disability employment that advocates are still fighting to overcome almost a century later. As a result of Section 14(c) of the FLSA, workers who have “disabilities for the job being performed”—meaning, “one whose earning or productive capacity is impaired by a physical or mental disability, including those relating to age or injury,” according to the Department of Labor—are subject to the subminimum wage. This has resulted in segregated “workshops” for some disabled employees, focused on piecemeal work and what is often referred to as the eight Fs of disability employment: food, filth, fetching, folding, filing, flowers, festive, and friendly. The disability community feels strongly that there is dignity in all types of work, but that workers should have a voice in what they do and should have a right to receive competitive wages regardless of the type of their disability.

These programs and the services they provided to people with disabilities have evolved, and were created at a time where there were no options other than mass warehousing of hundreds of people in sanitariums and institutions, starting as early as when a child was born and diagnosed with a disability. Folks rarely if ever left, and spent their entire lives separate from the community.

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When the subminimum wage was set up, a loaf of bread was nine cents, and a stamp cost three cents. Charlie McCarthy was the No. 1 show on the radio. These programs were never meant to be a permanent solution; rather they were designed to transition employees with disabilities into competitive integrated employment. It’s eighty years later and bread and milk are a lot more expensive than they were in 1938, yet 95 percent of disabled workers never transition out of subminimum wage placements.

Employment is one of the most significant factors in a disabled person’s overall well-being, but people with disabilities still lag significantly behind their peers without disabilities when it comes to employment, promotion, and wages, even if you take subminimum wage programs out of the equation. So why does there continue to be such support among advocates, families, and members of Congress for these programs?

When this bill gets voted on, advocates who are focused on preserving the subminimum wage might have it exempted from the legislation, leaving these programs and the legalized impoverishment of disabled workers in place. Those supporting the subminimum wage include employers who have decades of experience running these workshops, families who see no other option for their aging adult children, and businesses who contract with subminimum wage providers to get great prices on products and services. But maintaining this program would set us back as a society, not propel us forward by lifting up all workers.

The truth is that subminimum wages reinforce a culture built on the idea that disabled people must be isolated and kept from society—whether to keep them safe, or because they are perceived as dangerous. This pervasive attitude flies in the face of the goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act: full participation, economic self-sufficiency, independent living, and equality of opportunity. Why else are disabled young people today going to school and being told they can achieve the same as their peers, only to be steered into workshops grounded in low to no expectations for their career paths?

The Raise the Wage Act is exciting because it promises what the FLSA should have—inclusion. Thanks to generations of advocates fighting for inclusion of people with disabilities in school, the workplace, and society, the expectations should no longer be so low for people with disabilities. We know what works: supports and services, high expectations, and inclusion—like what we’ve seen in Kansas or in Maryland. With the right supports, including customized employment, job coaching, and supported employment programs for people with mental illness, individuals who were once seen as unable to successfully transition have been able to.

Today we know that disability is both a cause and a consequence of poverty. Being disabled comes with associated costs tied to health, transportation, and housing that non-disabled people do not need to budget for. And on the opposite end, being low-income forces people to make choices about housing, education, and employment that may have a disproportionately negative impact on health.

But if HR 582 passes with the language tied to Section 14(c) intact, wages for workers in segregated employment will increase to $4.25 and eventually meet the federal minimum wage over the next six years. This timed phaseout means that workers, many of whom have been in these programs for decades, will not be cast into the street overnight, as their employers will have time to adjust to modern times. Alaska, Maryland, New Hampshire, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington have all made this transition and can serve as models for existing programs to learn from.

Change may be hard, but 80 years of inequality demands it.

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