No Help from the Senate HELP Committee: Increasing the Wage Disparity for Workers with Disabilities

Blog Date: 
Wednesday, June 26, 2013
By Anil Lewis
 
Yesterday was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which is a monumental piece of legislation for most American workers.  The FLSA provides for the payment of a federal minimum wage, which is now $7.25 per hour, to every American citizen.  To commemorate this seventy-fifth anniversary, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) conducted a hearing entitled "Building a Foundation of Fairness: 75 Years of the Federal Minimum Wage,” to discuss a proposed increase in the federal minimum wage. 
 
However, many people with disabilities chose not to celebrate this anniversary because Section 14(c) of the FLSA excludes Americans with Disabilities from the “foundation of fairness” by allowing employers to obtain a Special Wage Certificate that permits them to pay their workers with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage.  In fact, the wage foundation of some workers with disabilities starts at three cents per hour.  While the Senate HELP Committee states that it is "keeping up with a changing economy” by “indexing the minimum wage," committee members are ignoring the plight of workers with disabilities by refusing to abolish an unfair, discriminatory, and immoral provision that condemns hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities to lives of low expectations, subminimum wages, and public assistance.     
 
The National Federation of the Blind and over fifty other committed organizations of and for people with disabilities are working to eliminate the payment of subminimum wages to workers with disabilities by advocating for the repeal of Section 14(c) of the FLSA.  The Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act of 2013, HR 831, has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to phase out the use of this discriminatory provision over a three-year period.  Rather than helping to eradicate Section 14(c) of the FLSA, on Thursday, June 20, 2013, the Senate HELP Committee conducted a hearing on the reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), and chose to consider language that would actually result in an increase in the use of this intolerable provision. 
 
WIA mandates coordination among federal and state job training programs—including employment services, adult education and literacy programs, welfare-to-work, vocational education, and vocational rehabilitation programs—to increase employment for all Americans.  For Americans with disabilities, the reauthorization of the federal Rehabilitation Act is a significant part of the WIA reauthorization process because it mandates that each state provide quality vocational rehabilitation services to assist individuals with significant disabilities to obtain competitive integrated employment.  However, the WIA draft contains language in Title V, Section 511 that would increase the wage disparity of workers with disabilities by providing a prescription for the use of subminimum wages in the vocational rehabilitation process.  While this language is intended to limit the steering of transition-age youth into subminimum wage programs by prescribing a number of hoops that must be jumped through in order for a vocational rehabilitation client to be placed in a sheltered workshop job, experience shows that its provisions will simply become a box-checking paperwork exercise that will have the unintended consequences of increasing the number of young people with disabilities being placed in subminimum wage shops.
 
With the language in Section 511, the U.S. Senate chooses to link the Rehabilitation Act, which was established to assist people with disabilities in obtaining competitive integrated employment, with Section 14(c) of the FLSA, which is based on the false premise that people with disabilities cannot be competitively employed and therefore can be paid subminimum wages.  The title of the Senate hearing on the WIA reauthorization was “Developing a Skilled Workforce for a Competitive Economy.” In our opinion, linking the Rehabilitation Act with Section 14(c) of the FLSA supports the development of an unskilled workforce of people with disabilities in a custodialistic economy.  
 
Our fight is not against an increase in the federal minimum wage.  Our fight is a fight for fairness and opportunity.  In fact, the same moral and economic arguments being used to justify a lifting of the minimum wage apply to workers with disabilities, over four-hundred thousand of whom are currently being paid wages significantly less than the federal minimum wage and well below the poverty line.  Workers with disabilities need the proper training and opportunity to earn a living wage that raises us out of poverty and dependence on public assistance, and allows us to contribute to the economy by spending the money we have earned.  We, too, are citizens. We believe that the four-hundred thousand American citizens with disabilities currently employed at subminimum wages have the capacity to be productive, competitive employees who deserve the same workforce protections as the millions of other nondisabled American citizens.  Similarly, as long as there is a federal minimum wage guarantee for nondisabled employees, workers with disabilities should have the same minimum wage guarantee.  All citizens, including those with disabilities, must be accorded the same rights and protections. Equality is part of our American creed, and as we write what the president called “the next great chapter in our American story,” we must, at long last, apply our belief in equal treatment and equal opportunity to Americans with disabilities.