by John Paré
From the Editor: John Paré is the executive director of strategic initiatives for the National Federation of the Blind. Although he is responsible for many program activities, he is best known for his focus on government affairs. In this article he tells us about new and exciting developments regarding our quest to see that blind people are paid a fair wage. Here is what he says:
On Thursday, May 26, 2017, Senators Bernie Sanders and Patty Murray, and Congressmen Bobby Scott and Keith Ellison introduced the Raise the Wage Act of 2017. This legislation would increase the federal minimum wage from its current rate of $7.25 per hour to $15.00 per hour by 2024. While similar legislation has been introduced in the past two Congresses, this version included, for the first time, a provision to end the payment of subminimum wages to workers with disabilities. This is unquestionably due to the tireless and determined advocacy of the National Federation of the Blind.
In a press release issued by the National Federation of the Blind on the day of the legislation's introduction, President Riccobono said, "The National Federation of the Blind has advocated for the elimination of the subminimum wage since our founding. The recognition of this issue by leaders in both houses of Congress and both parties confirms that the time has long passed to eliminate the unfair and separate wage system for people with disabilities. Time and time again, we have demonstrated that the idea of people with disabilities being less productive is simply an antiquated misconception that has been allowed to permeate throughout society. This wrong and harmful notion has resulted in multiple generations of disabled Americans being grossly underpaid and overly reliant on government assistance programs to survive. We want to work. We want to rid society of these low expectations. For those reasons, we applaud the promotion of economic self-sufficiency for people with disabilities set forth in the bill."
The press release further explained that under current law there is no minimum as to how little an employee with disabilities can be paid. Some workers earn merely pennies per hour, wages that were considered below average more than one hundred years ago.1
Section 6 of the Raise the Wage Act of 2017 would implement an immediate minimum wage of $4.25 per hour for all workers classified under Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. This absolute minimum wage rate would increase by two dollars per year until it matched the minimum wage earned by the rest of the American workforce, at which point employers would no longer be permitted to pay employees with disabilities a subminimum wage.
It is important to note that raising the overall minimum wage is a highly partisan issue. As of the writing of this article, not a single Republican in either the House or the Senate has cosponsored this legislation, making it extremely unlikely that it will ever pass through either chamber of Congress. Furthermore, while the National Federation of the Blind firmly believes that Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act must be phased out, the level at which the federal minimum wage should be set is not a blindness issue. Therefore, we do not take a position on the bill's primary purpose, which is to set a higher minimum wage rate.
We can justly celebrate the great progress we have made by getting this issue included in such mainstream legislation. But the best vehicle for phasing out and repealing Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act continues to be the Transitioning to Integrated and Meaningful Employment (TIME) Act, H.R. 1377. The TIME Act is sponsored by Representative Gregg Harper of Mississippi and enjoys solid support from both Republicans and Democrats. While the Federation is certainly gratified by the language included in the Raise the Wage Act, our efforts must remain laser-focused on passing the TIME Act. Therefore, we need to continue to urge our Representatives to cosponsor H.R. 1377. With our trademark love, hope, and determination, we are sure to make subminimum wages for people with disabilities a thing of the past.