People with Disabilities Deserve a Minimum Wage

Businessman in wheelchair using digital tablet in office
Businessman in wheelchair using digital tablet in office

There is a powerful movement in the United States to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour. That's the amount necessary for a family of four to live just above the national poverty line. But there are hundreds of thousands of workers in this country who have been left out of this fight, who will never benefit no matter how much the minimum wage is raised, and who share one characteristic. They have a disability.

In 1938, President Roosevelt signed into law the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). It set standards for basic minimum wage rates and overtime pay for workers. It also created a special exemption that permits certain employers to pay wages to workers with disabilities that are significantly lower than the minimum wage. Sometimes as low as just 8 cents an hour. This subminimum wage was originally created to encourage employers to hire veterans with physical disabilities struggling to find work in a manufacturing-centered economy.

However, today that same provision is being used to financially exploit workers with disabilities. Here's how it often goes. Unscrupulous employers eager to profit off the cheap labor they can access because of this provision in the FLSA portray their business as a "job training" program.

They entice schools, parents and service providers to send them workers with disabilities with the promise that, although they won't be paid much, they will learn a skill in a supposedly safe (but segregated) environment that will eventually lead them to a real job. But as soon as the worker becomes proficient in one area and ready to graduate, they change that person's task.

They give them something new to do, or they come up with some other reason for why the worker is not ready to leave. Can you imagine having to constantly adjust to new job responsibilities every time you became comfortable with a particular task? This goes on for years. Sometimes decades.

The truth is that many of the people who enter these job training programs have no hope of ever graduating or finding competitive employment. They labor away making only a fraction of the minimum wage while many company owners earn six-figure salaries.

In the best of situations, in which those who operate these workshops are genuinely trying to train individuals for the competitive job market, segregated work and the subminimum wage do not truly provide a meaningful experience for workers with disabilities. Workshop tasks are often menial and repetitive, without regard to the individual's own interests or skills. Nor can these workers expect to provide for themselves while earning pennies on the dollar, leaving most workshop employees impoverished and dependent on government assistance or their families. In the worst situations, the segregated and sheltered nature of the lives of workers with disabilities leaves them vulnerable to severe abuse and neglect and unable to participate as full members of society.

We live in an era of evolving thought about people with disabilities. Thirty years ago, no one believed there was another option for people with disabilities but to live in large, state-run institutions. The belief was they could never care for themselves or live independently; they were too vulnerable or too much of a burden to live in the community. But soon we saw these human warehouses for what they were and, in state after state, institutions closed. Now millions of people with disabilities are living, successfully, in their communities. They evolved and adapted and exceeded our expectations as did the rest of the country who recognized the value of having friends and neighbors with disabilities. The same can happen in the workplace.

Unfortunately, the subminimum wage is preventing people with disabilities from reaching their full potential. It is an appalling throwback to a time when people with disabilities were viewed as "less than" and we must now end this unfair and discriminatory practice.

Congress should eliminate Section 14c of the FLSA which established the subminimum wage for people with disabilities.