This is Not Acceptable for Workers with Disabilities

Blog Date: 
Monday, April 28, 2014
By Anil Lewis
 
The abhorrent practice of employing workers with disabilities at subminimum wages, which stems from the poor public policy codified in Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), has unfortunately been imbedded in disability service models and promoted as a viable alternative for people with disabilities who have significant challenges to employment.  As a result, we needlessly tolerate the counterproductive, sheltered subminimum-wage work environments that attempt to justify low expectations for the vocational potential of workers with disabilities, instead of providing encouragement and support for these same individuals to obtain real jobs at real wages.  This is especially intolerable in an age when innovative strategies produce viable alternatives that assist individuals with even the most significant disabilities in acquiring job skills that afford them the opportunity to secure competitive integrated employment. By continuing to deny people with disabilities the same wage protections as every other American worker, we sustain outdated environments that deny people with disabilities the opportunity for receiving the quality education, training, and support necessary to obtain competitive integrated employment.  
 
The simple fact is that under Section 14(c) of the FLSA, many workers with disabilities have been placed in jobs that require a skill set that they will never master under conditions that do not foster their vocational development.  For example, individuals with limited hand dexterity are required to screw caps on pens; individuals who would prefer jobs with more social interaction are segregated in isolated work environments performing mundane tasks; and individuals requiring specialized interventions are placed under the supervision of a well-meaning, but unqualified custodian.  Under these conditions, they will never meet the productivity requirements, never acquire a competitive job skill, and never be paid the same prevailing wage as the other employees.  Thankfully, more and more entities that have engaged in this unfair, discriminatory, and immoral practice are recognizing the error of their ways, and are moving toward the adoption of a new successful business model that capitalizes on the unique talents and strengths of each employee.  
 
Under this new model, many workers with disabilities are already performing at high productivity levels and earning the same wage as nondisabled employees.  Others require some additional training and support to reach this level of productivity, and like their nondisabled co-workers, they are provided this on-the-job training by the employer.  In order to encourage the continued adoption of community integrated employment models, and to facilitate ongoing systemic change culminating in the repeal of Section 14(c), we must answer an important question.  What should be done with those individuals who require a greater degree of intervention or have been erroneously placed as workers in these subminimum-wage environments?  
 
To answer this question, it must first be understood that although people with disabilities have greater challenges in gaining competitive integrated employment; these challenges do not prevent them from becoming productive employees.  Workers with disabilities, like workers without disabilities, have unique skills, interests, and abilities, and with the appropriate education, training, and support mechanisms, they can be productive employees competitive with their non-disabled co-workers.
 
Section 14(c) workshop owners fight reform and resort to threats of termination of workers with disabilities from their subminimum-wage jobs.  They paint a picture of hundreds of individuals with disabilities being sent to day rehabilitation environments or restricted to homecare, as though these are the only other alternatives.  This is a self-serving delusion that demonstrates an inability to provide quality training and employment while saying nothing about the actual capacity of workers with disabilities.  It prevents those individuals who are sinking in this quagmire of exploitation from receiving the opportunity to get the quality education, training, and support needed to obtain competitive integrated employment. 
 
There are viable, proven alternatives that offer training and competitive employment to individuals whom the workshops would otherwise condemn to a lifetime of segregated subminimum-wage employment.   The reality is that in order for some businesses to convert to a new competitive integrated business model, they may need to alter the employment relationship with certain disabled workers that they do not now know how to serve.
 
Some workshop managers may argue that they must fire workers if they are required to pay the minimum wage. This would be true if they insisted that the worker perform work in accordance with a model that does not maximize their potential. If the employer is unable to competitively employ the worker with a disability, we should not continue to fund that employer.  We should be using those resources to develop and sustain systems that provide quality education, training, and supports that will empower people with disabilities to be productive employees.  
 
Why is it such a frightening consequence to have individuals with disabilities leave these downward spiraling exploitive environments to participate in an unpaid training program that will lead to competitive integrated employment, when nondisabled people participate in the training offered by colleges, vocational/technical schools, and other job training environments every day without compensation?  Contrary to those who would encourage us to allow workers with disabilities to continue to languish in these environments of low expectations, we support the following:   
 
Rather than continuing to condemn hundreds of thousands of individuals with disabilities to a lifetime of sheltered segregated subminimum-wage employment, we embrace the difficult task of reform that may temporarily leave some people without their subminimum-wage paychecks.  We support the expectation that people with disabilities – like their nondisabled peers – will pursue education and training that allow them to acquire skills and explore various opportunities that will lead to their competitive integrated employment.  It is not deemed acceptable for workers without disabilities to be relegated to subminimum-wage employment outcomes, reliant on public assistance for their existence, and deprived of their dignity and self-worth.  It is likewise unacceptable for workers with disabilities.