by Anil Lewis
From the Editor: Traditions are hard to change, and regressive policies are usually acknowledged as such only after they have long-since been abolished. Someone must first sound the trumpet call, bring attention to a practice society finds uncomfortable to examine, and then lay bare the vested interests of those who profit from the unfair treatment of others. This is the role members of the National Federation of the Blind now play as we openly discuss how one blind person, who is called a production worker, makes pennies per hour, while another blind person, in a more elegant setting and with a more prestigious title, makes nearly ten thousand dollars a week. Where is the equity in this; where is the upward mobility promised the man who makes pennies per hour and is told this is because he is being trained? Where are the justice and the equity when the one who is paid pennies per hour is told that his job is not really about money; not really about making a living; not really about what he will need to raise a family, buy a house, and prepare for his retirement; and the man at the top is given a contract, participates in profit sharing, is given bonuses, and, if he fails, is often given a golden parachute so that he may gently descend into another job.
This is the latest in a series of articles we have run to examine from all angles the issue of paying the blind and the otherwise disabled less than the federally guaranteed minimum wage. This article originally appeared in a blog posted on April 28 and has been updated for this issue. Here is what Anil Lewis, the deputy executive director of the Jernigan Institute, has to say:
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 men and women to obtain real jobs at real wages. This is especially intolerable in an age when innovative strategies produce alternatives that assist people 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 enjoyed by every other American worker, we perpetuate outdated practices and behavior that deny people with disabilities the opportunity to receive 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. People with limited hand dexterity are required to screw caps on pens; people 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. The people who work under these conditions will never meet the productivity requirements, never acquire a competitive job skill, and never be paid the same prevailing wage as other employees.
Thankfully more and more employers who 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 productively and making the same wage as their nondisabled colleagues. Others require some additional training and support to reach this level of productivity, and, like their nondisabled coworkers, 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 bring about ongoing systemic change that will culminate in the repeal of Section 14(c), we must answer an important question: what should be done with the men and women who require a greater degree of intervention or who have been erroneously placed in the subminimum-wage jobs offered by the workshops?
To answer this question, we must first acknowledge that, while people with disabilities often have greater challenges in gaining competitive, integrated employment, these do not prevent them from becoming productive employees. Workers with disabilities (like workers without disabilities) have unique skills, interests, and abilities. With the appropriate education, training, and supports, they can be productive and can be every bit as competitive as their nondisabled coworkers.
Workshops that take advantage of the 14(c) exemption fight reform tooth and nail. They tell the public and their employees that the shops will have no choice but to terminate many of their disabled staff. They claim these men and women will need to be cared for by already overburdened family members or that they will be placed in day habilitation centers. They claim that these do not currently exist in numbers sufficient to meet the need that will arise when the shops are put out of business. These arguments are little more than self-serving scare tactics that are meant to distract from the real issues society needs to face—that we are placing disabled people in workshops that are unable to provide quality training and employment, even though they are exempt from paying taxes, receive preferential treatment in the procurement of contracts, and receive donations from the public intended to benefit the disabled men and women they are supposed to serve. Rather than raising the standard of living for their workers, these institutions prevent those who work in them from receiving the education and training that would allow them to function up to their God-given potential.
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 currently know how to serve.
Some workshop managers 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 in accordance with a model that does not maximize their potential. If the employer is unable to employ the worker with a disability competitively, 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 concept to have people with disabilities leave these dead-end, exploitive environments to participate in an unpaid training program that will lead to competitive integrated employment? Isn't this exactly what nondisabled people do when they participate in the training offered by colleges, vocational or technical schools, and other job training environments every day? Not only do nondisabled people work without pay—they actually pay their trainers to impart job skills that they will use in making a living.
Contrary to those who would encourage us to allow workers with disabilities to languish in environments that offer nothing in the way of training, nothing in the way of advancement, and nothing in the way of a living wage, we support the following: rather than continuing to condemn hundreds of thousands of men and women 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 acceptable for workers without disabilities to be relegated to subminimum-wage employment, reliant on public assistance for their existence, and deprived of their dignity and self-worth. It is likewise unacceptable for workers with disabilities, especially when we can do better and when models exist to help us in turning make-work jobs at subminimum wages a thing of the past.