Blog Date: 
Friday, January 24, 2014
Rose Sloan

More than four-hundred thousand people with disabilities are being paid subminimum wages—and it’s legal! Under current law, Special Wage Certificates are granted to nonprofit agencies that run “sheltered workshops” to employ people with disabilities. The Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act of 2013 (HR 831) will phase out the practice of paying people with disabilities subminimum wages over a three-year period.  The top ten reasons why you (and your member of Congress) should support the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act are:

10. The subminimum-wage model is antiquated.  Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the law that allows entities to pay workers with disabilities subminimum wages, was passed in 1938.  Technology, and the understanding of the true capacity of people with disabilities, has vastly improved since then.  With adaptive techniques, people with disabilities can be as productive as their non-disabled peers.  

9.  The formula for calculating wages is unfair.  Subminimum-wage employers claim that people with disabilities can make the minimum wage—all the workers have to do is keep up an impossible pace for hours at a time.  People with disabilities must keep a pace for an entire workday that is equivalent to a benchmark set by experienced workers doing the same task for only twenty minutes.  Not surprisingly, people without disabilities are not willing to be paid based on the same standard.  

8.  Sheltered workshops do not take into consideration their workers’ skills, interests, or talents.  The jobs sheltered workshop employees must perform are repetitive and boring, and making subminimum wages is not a motivator.  People with disabilities simply get placed into these tedious jobs when slots open up.  

7.  The Special Wage Certificate program only has a 5 percent success rate.  In other words, it’s a complete failure. 95 percent of the Special Wage Certificate holders are nonprofits that claim they are training people with disabilities for real jobs.  However, 95 percent of people with disabilities who enter sheltered workshops never obtain competitive integrated employment at the minimum wage or above.  Some of these sheltered workshops are fulfilling government contracts.  No project that has a 5 percent success rate should be funded by the government.  

6.  Sheltered workshops sustain a segregated, subminimum-wage work environment.   There is a better model.  The customized employment model, unlike the subminimum-wage model, takes into consideration the skills, interests, and talents of people with disabilities and matches these skills and talents with the needs of businesses.  It is a win-win situation—businesses’ needs are being met and people with disabilities are being productive and earning the minimum wage or more.  

5.  Members of Congress don’t want their children working in a sheltered workshop.  HR 831 is sponsored by Congressman Gregg Harper, who has a son with Fragile X syndrome.  So far, there are fifty other cosponsors, including congressional leaders who also have children with disabilities.  This isn’t a coincidence. They realize that sheltered workshops are inappropriate for their children, and they don’t want anyone’s children to be subjected to this demoralizing, low-wage environment.  

4.  Section 14(c) does not meet the expectations that people with disabilities set for themselves.  Over sixty-five disability organizations support phasing out 14(c).  Some believe that the NFB is fighting this fight on our own, but the repeal of 14(c) is supported by organizations that focus primarily on the deaf community and people with autism, Down syndrome, mental illness, developmental disabilities, and Fragile X syndrome.  

3.  Sheltered workshops cost more and produce poorer outcomes.  Robert Evert Cimera, from Kent State University, did a study of 430 people with autism who were currently employed in integrated, competitive employment.  He split the group in half—half had worked at a sheltered workshop, the other half had not.  He found that those who had sheltered workshop experience made less money in their current jobs and cost more vocational rehabilitation dollars than their counterparts.  

2.  Paying subminimum wages is immoral.  Executive directors of nonprofits holding Special Wage Certificates are earning six-figure salaries while the people with disabilities they are claiming to help are making as little as pennies per hour.  These same organizations claim to be supporting people with disabilities, but no one can support themselves on a subminimum-wage salary.  

1.  Paying people with disabilities subminimum wages is pure discrimination.  No other minority group is subjected to subminimum wages based on a characteristic.  It is respectable to be a person with a disability.  We should be paid respectable wages. 

And if these ten reasons are not enough for you, here is one last reason why you should support the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act: It is the right thing to do.