Blog Date: 
Monday, January 7, 2013

The New York Times recently published an editorial calling for an increase in the federal minimum wage. The article noted that the current minimum wage of $7.25 per hour has not increased since 2009, and that the federal minimum wage for waiters and waitresses and other tipped workers has been $2.13 since 1991. The article did not note that federal law has allowed workers with disabilities employed by certain entities to be paid less than the federal minimum wage since 1938, and that this discriminatory policy has not been reconsidered since that time, even as more progressive disability laws like the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act have come into force. There are, even today, workers with disabilities earning as little as three cents an hour who would jump at the chance to be paid $2.13 per hour plus tips, not to mention $7.25 an hour. But the dead-end sheltered workshop system does not allow them such opportunities.

The Times article notes that objections are often advanced against raising the federal minimum wage, including that doing so will hurt the economy by causing workers to lose jobs or stifling the creation of new ones. But the article notes that large entities with highly compensated executives that tend to pay workers low wages can well afford a minimum-wage increase, and that increasing the minimum wage also increases the purchasing power of consumers, thereby helping the economy.  The same is true for disabled workers; many of the sheltered workshops that employ them are multi-million-dollar enterprises with executives pulling down six-figure salaries or higher that can well afford to pay their workers at least the federal minimum wage. Indeed, workshops that have switched to a business model where workers are paid at least the federal minimum wage continue to thrive. Furthermore, paying these workers at least the federal minimum wage would not only increase their purchasing power but also release them from dependence on public assistance. Given the current economy and fiscal climate, surely this is a desirable outcome.

While the Times article, intentionally or otherwise, ignores the plight of subminimum-wage workers with disabilities, the fact that wages are a matter of current public concern means that there is no better time to eliminate the discriminatory and exploitative practice of paying workers with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage. The National Federation of the Blind and those who partner with us will continue to advance the cause of true wage equality for all workers, including those with disabilities.