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The Issue of Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities

The Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act of 2013 (H.R. 831)

Current labor laws unjustly prohibit workers with disabilities from reaching their full vocational and socioeconomic potential.

Written in 1938, Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) discriminates against people with disabilities. The provision allows the Secretary of Labor to grant to employers Special Wage Certificates that permit them to pay workers with disabilities subminimum wages (wages that are less than the federal minimum wage) primarily in sheltered workshops (segregated work environments). This is based on the false assumption that disabled workers are less productive than nondisabled workers, which has been disproven by the successful employment models that have emerged in the last seventy-five years to assist people with significant disabilities in acquiring the job skills needed for competitive work.  Section 14(c) sustains segregated subminimum-wage workshops that exploit disabled workers, paying some only pennies per hour for mundane, repetitive tasks.

This discriminatory policy is not necessary for the successful operation of a disability-training program. The overwhelming majority of Goodwill Industries and National Industries for the Blind (NIB) affiliates operate successfully without paying subminimum wages. Countless entities have successfully transitioned their subminimum-wage business model of low expectations to an innovative model of competitive, integrated training and employment, meeting the growing needs of mainstream employers with the proven talents of employees with disabilities. Only outdated workshops argue they will be unable to manage worthwhile programs without the use of the Special Wage Certificates.

The subminimum-wage model fails to provide adequate training or employment to disabled workers. Data shows that less than 5 percent of the four-hundred thousand workers with disabilities in segregated subminimum-wage workshops will transition into competitive integrated work. Moreover, research shows that the subminimum wage model costs more, but actually produces less! In fact, workers must unlearn the useless skills they acquire in order to obtain meaningful employment. It is poor policy to reward such failed programs with wage exemptions, preferential federal contracts, and public and charitable contributions.

After seventy-five years of demonstrated failure, it is time to invest in proven, effective models for employment. Section 14(c) sustains the same segregated, subminimum-wage environments that existed in 1938. This discriminatory model has proven to be extremely ineffective and offers no incentive for mainstream employers to hire people with disabilities. The Employment First Movement promotes new concepts, such as “supported” or “customized” employment, which are successful at producing competitive, integrated employment outcomes for individuals with significant disabilities who were previously thought to be unemployable.

The Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act of 2013 (H.R. 831) has been introduced by Congressman Gregg Harper. The bill, when passed, will responsibly phase out and eventually repeal Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. As a result, individuals with the most significant disabilities will no longer be trapped in the segregated subminimum-wage workshops that have been proven to cost more and produce very poor outcomes. Current service providers will have three years to transition to a proven competitive integrated training and employment business model that assists individuals with even the most significant disabilities obtain real jobs at real wages. Organizations opposing the adoption of this proven model only demonstrate their lack of expertise in the field of employment of people with disabilities, their inability to be competitive with similarly situated organizations, and their unwillingness to meet the true calling of their charitable status.

To learn more about the issue and the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act of 2013, please read our frequently asked questions document.

Frequently Asked Questions (Word)

Supporting Organizations and Letters of Support

Full list of supporting organizations (Word)

The following are letters supporting the repeal of Section 14(c) of the FLSA:

Sign Our Fair Wages Petition

You can now support the effort of the National Federation of the Blind to eliminate the practice of paying wages below the federal minimum to workers with disabilities by signing our online petition. Please sign the petition and share it with all of your colleagues, friends, and family.

Section 511

The National Federation of the Blind, along with a growing number of other disability organizations, is opposed to language in the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), S. 1356, which would reauthorize the Rehabilitation Act (Title V.) with a provision that would authorize rehab agencies to place disabled workers in subminimum-wage employment, and move the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) from the Department of Education to the Department of Labor. For our full comments on these proposed changes, please read the letter sent on July 19, 2013, to the Senate HELP Committee and our #FIXWIA blog post. More information can also be found in the links below.

List of Special Wage Certificate Holders

The CRP Worksheet, an Excel spreadsheet downloadable from the U.S. Department of Labor, lists almost three thousand employers that hold certificates issued under Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. These certificates permit the employers to pay subminimum wages, wages that are less than the federal minimum wage, to over four-hundred thousand of their workers with disabilities. The link takes you to the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division’s current list of certificate-holding entities.

Goodwill Industries Chooses to Pay Subminimum Wages

Goodwill is a household name, but most households do not realize that Goodwill Industries International is one of the many employers that pay less than the federal minimum wage to its workers with disabilities while its top executives receive more than $53.7 million in total compensation. This fact was exposed by John Hrabe in the story "Policies, tax dollars enrich Goodwill execs," published by Watchdog.org in early May 2013. 

Subsequently, Goodwill’s use of this practice, and attempts to defend it, were highlighted by NBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams on June 21, 2013, with the story, “Disabled workers paid just pennies an hour-and it's legal.”

Goodwill, in its attempt to represent Section 14(c) as an essential tool for the provision of quality training or competitive employment of people with disabilities, actually demonstrates that entities can operate successfully without paying subminimum wages. Goodwill states that 101 of its affiliates operate successfully without paying subminimum wages to their workers with disabilities. However, rather than adopting a policy to require the other sixty-four affiliates to operate in a similar fashion, the Goodwill representatives state that it is a local decision for these affiliates to pay their workers with disabilities subminimum wages, and that they support this choice. In order to effect change in this policy, we are urging people not to shop at thrift stores affiliated with Goodwill Industries International and/or donate goods to Goodwill until it adopts a policy requiring each of its affiliates to pay at least the federal minimum wage to all of their workers with disabilities.

On Saturday, August 25, 2012, the NFB and its affiliates and chapters conducted over ninety informational protests of Goodwill thrift store locations across the country. The purpose of the protests was to promote public awareness of the unfair, discriminatory, and immoral practice of paying subminimum wages to workers with disabilities.  

On October 31, 2013, members of the NFB, along with representatives of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), unmasked Goodwill's exploitation of workers with disabilities by delivering copies of a Change.org petition to various Goodwill headquarters across the country. The petition had already garnered 170,000 signatures from Americans who demand that Goodwill pay its workers with disabilities a real wage.

Sign the Change.org petition.

To stay up-to-date on the protest and boycott activities, please follow @NFB_Voice on Twitter. Please use the hash tag #fairwages and Goodwill’s Twitter handle of @GoodwillIntl to monitor and post about local protests and boycott on your own Twitter accounts.  You may also become a fan of the National Federation of the Blind on Facebook, and post comments to Goodwill’s Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/GoodwillIntl

Research/Reference Materials

In the News

Background and History

Other Articles and Blogs

Press Releases

Policy Statements


For further information on this important issue, please contact:

Anil Lewis
Director of Advocacy and Policy
National Federation of the Blind
(410) 659-9314, extension 2374

Rose Sloan
Governmental Affairs Specialist
National Federation of the Blind
(410) 659-9314, extension 2441

For future updates, please follow NFB_Voice on Twitter (and please use the hashtag #fairwages when posting about this issue), or sign up to receive our press releases. Please help us to achieve true equality for Americans with disabilities.