by Anna Kresmer
From the Editor: The following is another in our series of historical documents in the Jacobus tenBroek Library.
As most readers know, our federal legislative agenda for 2012 includes the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act of 2011 (H.R. 3086). This bill would amend Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to end the practice of government-issued permits that allow employers to pay their disabled workers subminimum wage, a practice often, although not exclusively, used in sheltered workshops. Supporters of the bill believe that, in addition to paying an unfair wage, these permits encourage low expectations and reinforce the stereotype that disabled people are incapable of surviving in a competitive workplace. As of late March the bill was continuing to make progress in the House of Representatives, thanks to the efforts of the NFB and our allies among other organized groups of disabled Americans.
The struggle to attain the minimum wage for the disabled is nothing new to the NFB. Evidence of the Federation’s activism on this issue over the decades is preserved in the archives at the Jernigan Institute. The tenBroek library staff recently encountered one such piece of documentation in the papers of Jacobus tenBroek and is pleased to present it this month. This 1968 unsigned draft of a never-published Braille Monitor article--presumably written by John Nagle, then chief of the NFB Washington office--details the wage situation faced by blind workers of the day. We do not know why this article was not published, but perhaps it was lost in the organizational shuffle surrounding President tenBroek's death on March 27, 1968.
Regardless of why it never appeared in print or Braille, this article provides a solid description of the status of the subminimum wage issue at the time. It points out the victories already won through collective effort on the part of the organized blind, and it highlights the problems still left to solve. It accounts for just one battle in a greater war on employment discrimination. But--even though the road may seem long today and the battle tiring--just as it did in 1968--the Federation spirit is as strong as ever. Today this archival document serves as a historical snapshot, reminding us of how far we have come, showing how far we have left to go, and encouraging us to keep fighting.
On February 1, 1968, 80 cents became the hourly minimum wage rate applicable to the earnings of handicapped workers employed in sheltered workshops. This upping of the sheltered shop wage is in accordance with the second-step federal minimum wage rise provided for by the 1966 amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act. These amendments established the overall federal hourly minimum wage at $1.40 on February 1, 1967, and at $1.60 on February 1, 1968--and they also included the historic action of imposing a wage minimum on sheltered shop hourly earnings, providing that such minimum be not less than 50 percent of the federal hourly minimum wage. Thus, on February 1 of last year, 70 cents was established as the statutory hourly minimum wage in sheltered shops, and, on February 1, 1968, as the federal minimum advanced from $1.40 to $1.60 an hour, the sheltered shop minimum rose from 70 cents to 80 cents an hour.
This sheltered shop minimum wage can hardly be considered as assuring handicapped workers anything approaching a decent standard of living, even when they are able to earn the minimum--and many do not, because of the nature of the work they are offered to do. And then, too, many shop workers are specifically excluded from even the meager minimum wage provided for in the Fair Labor Standards Act. Still, the congressional imposition of any minimum wage at all on sheltered workshops remains a historic milestone in the centuries-long effort to secure equity and opportunity for handicapped people, to secure the same rights and protections for handicapped people which are so generally available to physically fit people.
Nor is the National Federation of the Blind willing to rest on its congressional gains for sheltered shop workers in 1966 and accept 80 cents as the permanent statutory floor for hourly sheltered shop wages. For a time there had been the hope that the study of wages in sheltered shops conducted by the secretary of labor in response to congressional mandate would bring about a recognition of the total inadequacy of the wage structure in sheltered shops and would result in earnings improvements for handicapped workers. But the secretary's sheltered shop study has been issued, and it offers no basis for assuming that sheltered shop wages will be bettered by administrative action. So the organized blind will return to Congress and again plead the cause of all physically disabled employees in sheltered workshops.
A new minimum wage in sheltered workshops bill is now being drafted which will provide for the raising of the sheltered shop hourly minimum wage to the existing federal minimum in two stages--first to 75 percent, and then, a year later, to the federal minimum. The Federation will look again to the same congressional leaders who worked so closely and so successfully with us before, Congressman John H. Dent, Pennsylvania, and Senator Wayne Morse, Oregon. And the Federation will again also look for support and cooperation from the AAWB [American Association of Workers for the Blind] and the AFB [American Foundation for the Blind], who worked shoulder to shoulder with the organized blind in the 89th Congress when, finally, victory was achieved by the enactment of the sheltered shop provisions of the 1966 amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act.(Attention: I think it would be helpful to print the sheltered shop minimum wage provisions of the 1966 Fair Labor Standards Act amendments at the conclusion of this article.)