Thursday, August 15, 2013

Subminimum Wages for Workers with Disabilities and Their Inherent Injustice

The America I believe in is about equal rights for all people. America should not be a place where justice is selectively granted, based on who you are and the life you lead. But that is what is happening for hundreds of thousands of workers with disabilities at organizations such as Goodwill Industries. Section 14C of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) allows businesses to issue “special wage” certificates that permit disabled workers to earn less than the minimum wage, usually in segregated settings. 14C is intended to secure jobs for severely disabled people, but people in these jobs are denied the employee protections given to able-bodied workers from the get-go. Some of those given “special” wages earn twenty cents per hour, and are not offered the opportunity to advance. In fact, subminimum wage workers in places such as Goodwill can be fired for making just two mistakes, and their salaries are calculated based on how many products can be assembled in a given time. It is immoral and nonsensical that able-bodied workers are given minimum wage ($7.25) by default, while disabled workers have to prove themselves repeatedly, and still may not earn $7.25 despite excellent work.
14C reinforces the age-old culture of low expectations for people with disabilities. In a time when we should be creating innovative support systems, many businesses are still taking advantage of this unjust provision. Some of you may be wondering, what’s so wrong with Goodwill? Aren’t they helping out disabled people who need jobs? The intentions may be good, and the practices may even be construed as compassion in action. However, the attitude that including people with disabilities, even in subminimum wage companies, is an act of benevolence is very damaging. Inclusion in the workforce is a right, not a privilege or a handout from those claiming to “look out” for people with disabilities. Paternalistic systems based on a misguided compassion paint people with disabilities as passive recipients, unworthy of their own voice. If we expect people with disabilities to be satisfied, even grateful, for a job below the salary guaranteed to all others, then we insinuate that the disabled community cannot make contributions of any real value. Thus, the cycle of oppression continues.
Furthermore, concerns about the financial viability of businesses without 14C should be dismissed. If Goodwill provided its disabled workers with minimum wage, the only ones experiencing a major loss would be the CEOs, some of whom make one million dollars annually while disabled workers are forced to accept less than a dollar per day, just because they have a disability. No one should be cashing a huge check as their workers are excluded from enjoying a basic right afforded to every other in this country. To allow subminimum wages is a sin, but to mask the injustice of this practice and call it compassion is an insult to every member of our human family, and every true act of compassion on the planet. The challenge before us is to transition to a model where special wage certificates join slavery as shameful parts of our past. This will not be easy, but it will be right, and it will be possible. Some businesses are already leading the way in offering employees the same wages and expectations regardless of disability status. One such example is Walgreen’s, a company that has moved away from the charity mentality to offer disabled workers true equality. With adequate training and creativity, even those with severe, multiple disabilities can be taught a real skill for real life, rather than a menial task in a sheltered workshop that they may never have the opportunity to leave. In fact, according to recent information I learned from National Federation of the Blind staff member Anil Lewis, 95% of those placed in sheltered workshops stay there. This proves the notion that sheltered workshops prepare workers for the open market to be a falsity. The severity of workers’ disabilities cannot justify the practice either. According to Samuel Bagenstos, those working in sheltered workshops and those working in the open market had comparative scores when they took tests to evaluate Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) (Black, Schartz & Schartz, as cited in Bagenstos, 2013). Our nation must be bold and tenacious in creating labor systems that provide meaningful work to all, and reject the premise of 14C. Workers with disabilities deserve better than a second-class position below the threshold of justice and equality. If businesses put as much effort into researching the interests, talents, and needs of people with disabilities as they did into making money, we as a country would take a giant leap forward. Justice has only ever come after the investment of great courage and resolve. The repeal of 14C is worth the struggle ahead. I am willing to invest my courage as my forefathers did to realize their vision. Justice for all workers will be a worthwhile reward.

Bagenstos, S. (2013). “The case against the 14 ( c) subminimum wage program.” National Federation for the Blind. Retrieved from

Support people with disabilities. Say no to businesses that give subminimum wages to workers with disabilities! Find out more about the issues here and speak up in favor of the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act of 2013

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