75 Years of the Fair Labor Standards Act and People with Disabilities Have No Reason to Celebrate

Blog Date: 
Friday, November 15, 2013

By Anil Lewis

Today, the U.S. Department of Labor will be celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) with an all-day program.  There will be a host of presentations on various wage and workplace achievements.  However, a significant topic will not be discussed: Section 14(c) of the FLSA.  

In 1938, the year Section 14(c) of the FLSA was enacted, the federal minimum wage was 25 cents per hour. At that time, Section 14(c) provided workers with disabilities a wage floor of 75 percent of the federal minimum wage.  In 1966, this wage floor was reduced to 50 percent of the federal minimum wage.  Then, in 1986 the wage floor was entirely eliminated.  Today, seventy-five years after Section 14(c) was enacted, there are workers with disabilities being paid less than the federal minimum wage of 25 cents that was guaranteed to non-disabled workers in 1938.

You may ask why this provision was ever integrated into the FLSA.  The belief was that people with disabilities cannot be productive employees.  The social experiment, established under a misguided assumption, was that if you create environments where people with disabilities are provided an opportunity to engage in work-like activities in segregated environments that provide the tangible and intangible benefits of work, these individuals will be better off.  Today approximately three thousand subminimum-wage employers or “incubators” exist, creating over four-hundred-thousand social beneficiaries with disabilities being paid less than the federal minimum wage.  Data show that less than 5 percent of people with disabilities working in these subminimum-wage work environments ever secure competitive integrated employment.  I think it is safe to say that this seventy-five-year-old social experiment of low expectations, segregation, and subminimum wages has failed.

Fortunately, due to the creativity, innovation, and dedication of entities committed to helping individuals with significant disabilities to reach their full vocational potential, a parallel experiment is taking place.  This perspective begins with the belief that all people can work, and that when provided the proper training, support, and opportunities, individuals with significant disabilities can acquire an employable job skill worthy of being paid at least the federal minimum wage.  The Employment First movement, expanding the use of supported employment and customized employment strategies, is creating a paradigm shift in the belief in the capacity of workers with disabilities.  Individuals with significant disabilities are receiving training from experts, making it possible for them to take advantage of a variety of competitive integrated employment opportunities where they earn at least the federal minimum wage.

The assertion of subminimum-wage employers that workers with disabilities cannot be productive employees is being proven false, and subminimum-wage employers must acknowledge that they do not have the expertise they claim to possess.  We must discard the failed approach of segregated subminimum-wage workshops and embrace the innovative strategies of competitive integrated training and employment that have proven to cost less and produce better employment outcomes.

To those in attendance: enjoy the celebration.  The National Federation of the Blind, along with sixty-five other organizations, will be busy working to repeal this discriminatory provision. The Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act of 2013, HR 831, which will phase out the use of Section 14(c) Special Wage Certificate over a three-year period, is our hope for a better future.  I pray that it will not take another seventy-five years to see the error of this discriminatory policy.