07 February 2014

Can we end subminimum wage for people with disabilities?

President Obama recently announced that he will issue an executive order requiring all federal contractors to pay a $10.10 minimum wage to their workers. The language there might be somewhat misleading, though, and actually does omit a fairly large group of workers. Some federal contractors hold special certificates issued under Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act that permit them to pay disabled workers subminimum wage—and the executive order does not include these disabled workers in the new, higher minimum wage.

Achieving economic justice is critical for achieving disability justice. When companies contracted to the federal government are legally permitted to engage in wage discrimination by paying disabled workers less than the minimum wage, this sends a strong message that the labor of disabled people is considered to be less valuable than the labor of non-disabled people. Since the de-institutionalization movement, more and more disabled people have been able to find work in the community, yet many of us still struggle with unemployment. We should not face the prospect of having to choose between unemployment and jobs where we will earn a mere pittance—sometimes, less than one dollar an hour—on the fundamentally inaccurate and prejudiced presumption that disabled status somehow renders the work of a disabled person lesser and less valuable.

The Obama administration has recognized the work of many disability rights advocates, and there are more disabled people in high-ranking positions throughout the federal government now than there have been under previous administrations. The White House honored eight young disabled people—myself included—for our work to liberate and empower our communities only this past year. But there is still much more work to do, and while the government certainly can’t accomplish all of it, this is one thing that is definitively within President Obama’s ability to do.

The upcoming executive order to raise minimum wage for all employees of federal contractors presents a significant opportunity for President Obama to change the landscape of disability employment. Requiring all federal contractors to pay all workers, including those with disabilities, the higher minimum wage, would set an example for other employers in the private sector as well as increase access to the community for those disabled workers currently paid less than minimum wage under 14(c).

The sheltered workshop industry, however, has been lobbying hard against any potential action to eliminate subminimum wage for disabled workers. Using the tactics of fear-mongering about the supposed inability of disabled people to work in integrated, inclusive settings, these institutions continue to argue that subminimum wage is necessary for some disabled people. We must stand against such divisive rhetoric that attempts to position some disabled people as able to work in the community and other disabled people as those who can’t work in a community setting and need to be in a sheltered workshop or other similar setting.

Image description: Disabled activists from UK organization Disabled People Against Cuts protesting in London in January 2012. Several light-skinned people in winter clothing and using wheelchairs, holding colorful signs with messages like "No meals on wheels? Eat the rich," "Real Work for Real Pay," "Fat cats get away fairness?", "We r All in it together," and "our society: the rich getting richer?"

New York, Oregon, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are all working toward eliminating sheltered workshops. It would be sensible and logical for the federal government to follow suit. There is no shortage of reasons for supporting disabled people in equal access to employment—there are the principles of equality and opportunity, there is the affirmation that the labor of disabled people is valuable, there is the correlation between financial stability and civic empowerment, and there is—rather simply—that it is the right thing to do. The fact that large groups of disabled workers have systematically been denied minimum wage solely on the basis of their disabilities as a matter of law and policy is an inequity. A potential executive order altering that inequity presents an opportunity for a move toward justice and redressing that inequity.

Those of us who are disabled must urge the White House to make the right decision—to affirm that economic justice does in fact include disabled people, and to stand by the principles of full equality and equal opportunity. But there isn’t much time for us to be heard.

The Collaboration for the Promotion of Self Determination, a coalition of twenty-one progressive and disabled-led disability rights organizations, sent a letter to the White House urging this change. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Japanese American Citizens League, Service Employees International Union, and AFL-CIO have actually all joined as signatories to that letter.

How many of those of us who are actually disabled will write or call the administration? If we make our voices heard louder than the opposition, we can start to change the unjust practice of subminimum wage for disabled people and little by little chip away at the walls of injustice.

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network is urging disabled people and allies to contact the White House and Department of Labor, to urge the administration to include people with disabilities in the new wage protections. All workers also means all disabled workers. Our lives matter and our labor matters. Economic justice must also mean disability justice.

In your emails to the White House, contact:

Claudia Gordon (Claudia_L_Gordon@who.eop.gov) and "cc":
Valerie Jarrett (vjarrett@who.eop.gov)
Portia Wu (portia.y.wu@who.eop.gov)

In your emails to the Department of Labor, contact:

Matthew Colangelo (Colangelo.Matthew@dol.gov) and "cc"
ODEP Assistant Secretary Kathy Martinez (martinez.kathy@dol.gov).


  1. Question, Lydia: Is there a template we can use to campaign for equal wages? I agree with everything you've said and couldn't really say it better myself...so I'm wondering if there is a template to work from and kind of copy/paste, edit certain info about me, and then submit it to the government. Just as an advisement to everyone who may write in, I'm assuming this is a "public comment period," so do not sign your letter with your name/information when submitting online. Only fill in the boxes as directed and do not use identifying information in the body text. A friend found out this the hard way when her name and then-address/information was published online, along with her comments, for the world to see, forever.

    Thanks so much Lydia for posting this, you are exactly right. Equal wages should be a civil right!

  2. In my own positive experience, I would be cautious about going after sheltered workshops. When I was a school principal (non-profit school), we ran on a tight budget. Our total facilities staff was two men who began work at 6:00am if not earlier. As part of our civic duty in King County, Washington, we contracted with a sheltered workshop for cleaning the school facilities every afternoon. The workshop provided workers, training, supervision, and transportation. The numbers of workers fluctuated as did the ability of the workers. I found one of my friends lying face down in the parking lot next to the curb that ran along the gym. At first I thought he was hurt. But he explained to me he was hiding (in full sight) from the Supervisor because he had gone to watch the girls' basketball instead of doing his task. We were an educational institution, so we understood all that. Eventually, we hired one of the workers who had done so well. Every year there was a crisis about whether the Sheltered Workshop would get enough funding to keep going. As long as they did, we stuck by them. Yet even though we were trying to be good citizens, if the cost of cleaning through the workshop had been too high for us, a non-profit on a strict budget, perhaps we would not have been able to continue working with them.

    1. My first reaction is to stare incredulously at this comment and wonder, are you serious?

      It is profoundly disappointing to me that a staunch advocate of social justice such as yourself would even consider supporting sheltered workshops, which are widely considered a gross economic injustice against disabled people by actually disabled people. To suggest that sheltered workshops provide affordable sources of labor for small non-profit organizations and should therefore be supported for this reason is to choose economic expediency over equal rights for all workers. To suggest that contracting with sheltered workshops is good citizenship (ostensibly by benefiting the disabled workers) is condescending and dehumanizing. Support of sheltered workshops is tantamount to condoning unequal standards of fair wages and labor practices for disabled people solely on the basis of disability status.

      I'm certainly not going to deny that finding and sustaining funding for small non-profit organizations are often extremely difficult ventures, having worked with a number of non-profits myself, but it is appalling to the conscience that you would consider contracting with sheltered workshops, which by definition pay their workers less than minimum wage, an ethical or sensible means for budget control or reduction.

      Furthermore, your comment about the fluctuating "ability of the workers" and anecdote about a worker avoiding his supervisor seem to suggest that sheltered workshops are necessary based on the (perceived) abilities (or lack thereof) of disabled workers employed by them. The comment is unfair and biased because it implies that disabled workers may be more likely to be "less able" than non-disabled workers or more likely to shirk their duties than non-disabled workers, when in fact, plenty of non-disabled workers may be "less able" to perform a particular task or job, or may be prone to slacking off while on the job. The comment was unnecessary and irrelevant.

      I am disappointed and would have expected better. Disabled workers' rights are workers' rights, too.

    2. I'm a bit confused about what you're exactly asserting, but it sounds like you're using an anecdote about one disabled employee, one time, who happened to be slacking off on the job (something that typically-abled employees are hardly immune from doing) to defend the systematic practice of paying disabled workers less than minimum wage. Surely the actions of one employee, one time, who happened to be disabled, do not reflect the work habits of disabled employees as a whole.

    3. Good citizenship is paying all people fairly, regardless of disability status. Just because discrimination and exploitative policies might help other worthy causes or enterprises doesn't make it justified.

    4. Lydia, you say disabled people do not believe in or want sheltered workshops. May I ask how you would know that the persons in the sheltered workshop to which I refer did not want that experience and possibility?

      Lydia, we don't agree on a complex social justice issue. That does not mean I do not support a living wage or that I have abandoned my life-long commitment to social justice and a living wage.

      Our school agreed to be a training site for a sheltered workshop that was preparing disabled workers for the marketplace. You think we were wrong to do that. You also think that members of the disabled community agree with you. That's the nature of discourse about justice: persons of good will seeing the same issue from different lenses.

      We had pay the Workshop to be this training site, but on the understanding that we would also get our buildings cleaned. (This is the same way groups in DC select Central Kitchen as a catering service. Is the food always tasty or the portions sportions sufficient? Can one always count on the service to be prompt and complete? Not necessarily, but provided the food arrives, some organizations stick with DC Central Kitchen because it trains former prisoners to become employable.)

      Our school was not expected to provide a worker training lab site or free. If we had been asked, I bet we would have said "Yes."

      Rather, we were asked to contract for cleaning services that would be provided by those being trained, with the understanding this would have its ups and downs.

      We are educators, so we said "Yes." No we were not hiring cheap labor or indentured servants. And, yes, we were engaged in a civic project--at least as understood at the time. King County was looking for, begging for, employers who were willing to do this and to put up with the implications.

      You are saying that disabled communities no longer want such sheltered workshop training programs. Fine. Maybe times have changed. Then how ought King County now assure worker training for the disabled who want that? And how should it be funded?

      Azalea, I did not say one worker "slacked off". To me, the episode of the young man who watched the girls basketball game was quite understandable. Similarly, it iis quite understandable that one aspect of learning how to be employable is learning not to get distracted by watching the girls' basketball game or by learning how to watch it and get the work done.

      Rather, I was trying to point out we knew we were agreeing to an educative project by giving an example of what that entails. That's all. We are educators. Lots of our students don't know how to concentrate on the task as hand or to find ways to match work requirements with interests. We have to work with students on that, teach them strategies, make the consequences clear etc. We understood the Sheltered Workshop program was engaged in a similar educative project with their members. We were willing to work with and around that.

      Shain, I agree with you justice, never mind good citizenship, requires paying people fairly and that means a living wage, not a minimum wage. As I said, when we noticed how hard one member of the sheltered workshop worked hard and consistently, we hired him directly on our dime. Fair wages, full benefits, etc.

    5. Then why not join with us in supporting that to be the default for everyone, disabled or not? If you would not support a nondisabled person having to prove that they deserved a living or even minimum wage before being given it while they're already doing the work, why should a disabled person have to put up with that from any source?

    6. I still think it was demeaning to use the example of the worker who didn't understand hiding, because that looked very derogatory of workers with developmental disabilities. He's so dumb he can't even realize everyone can see him. Har har har.

    7. At the risk of repeating what I said in my previous (slightly mis-posted) response, let’s be absolutely clear: it is impossible to claim a comprehensive “commitment to social justice” without a commitment to a living wage for all workers. And it is impossible to affirm that “justice, never mind good citizenship, requires paying people...a living wage, not a minimum wage,” while supporting an institution that pays its workers neither a living wage nor the minimum wage. I do not agree that this is a “complex social justice issue.” Certain people are being paid below the minimum wage because of their membership in an oppressed group. That is straightforward, and straightforwardly wrong. There are certain matters that call for moral clarity, and this is one.

      Nor is it sufficient to cry “training program” and “we are educators.” Labor performed for someone else must be equitably compensated, training program or not. For instance, I am a teaching assistant. The purpose of my assistantship is to train me as a college educator, but it also requires that I provide labor to my department and my students. My stipend, divided by the approximate number of hours I work, is above the minimum wage—not a handsome compensation, to be sure, but at least sufficient for me to eke out a frugal existence during the academic year. Is my work as an autistic TA more valuable than that of an autistic sheltered workshop employee? Moreover, if I were to make a mistake that you thought was “understandable,” but that nonetheless affected the education my students received, would you consider that sufficient cause to cut not only my pay, but the pay of all my fellow TAs?

      Not to mention, of course, that these “training programs” often utterly fail to generate opportunities for better-compensated employment down the road. I regret to say that the one employee you ended up hiring directly is fairly exceptional. The more common effect is to trap disabled workers in a cycle of dependency, segregation, and low-wage work. There is an extensive literature to back up this assertion and demonstrate the overwhelming superiority of supported employment in preparing disabled people for the competitive job market.

      “You say disabled people do not believe in or want sheltered workshops. May I ask how you would know that the persons in the sheltered workshop to which I refer did not want that experience and possibility?” I doubt that Lydia was asserting that every single worker in every single sheltered workshop in the country wants to see the system abolished. I suspect that is why she said that sheltered workshops are “widely [rather than universally] considered a gross economic injustice against disabled people by actually disabled people.” Indeed, even southern segregationists and slave owners could produce examples of people who were satisfied with their oppressed state and willing to fight those who sought to change it. The point is that the disability community as a whole—including no small number of former sheltered workshop employees—has spoken clearly, identifying the sheltered workshop as an exploitative institution whose continued existence harms all of us. We do not need the assent of every last disabled person in the country before we can claim that our position represents the true interest of disabled workers.

      “How ought King County now assure worker training for the disabled who want that? And how should it be funded?” I suggest that they look to states like Vermont, which phased out sheltered workshops and subminimum wage work over a decade ago; or to New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Oregon, which are in the process of following suit.

  3. I share Lydia's incredulity at this comment, which is based on deeply flawed and prejudiced logic. I'm particularly shocked at the suggestion that the real or perceived incompetence of a few disabled workers justifies subminimum wages for all disabled workers. Would you say the same thing about any other group? If you had worked with Latino employees, and some of them had a poor grasp on the English language, would you use that to justify low wages for Latinos? If many of the teachers at the school you ran were women, and you found that some of them gossiped excessively and caused workplace drama, would you use that to justify low pay for women? If you hired a number of black employees, and some of them were habitually late for work, would you use that to justify low pay for black people?

    Your argument is no different. It is based on a common and pernicious stereotype—that disabled people are unreliable and bad at their jobs—and it does real economic harm to an already excluded and vulnerable group.

    Moreover, hiring someone is not an act of “civic duty” or “good citizenship.” It is an economic transaction in which every worker must have equal rights. Again, women and people of color are underrepresented in the workforce. With this in mind, would you hire a number of black women out of charity, and then far pay them less than their colleagues with the explanation that at least you’re giving them a foot in the door of the job market? Would you rush to the defense of someone who did such a thing?

    Bluntly, I don’t care if the organization hiring disabled workers is a cash-strapped non-profit. If you believe in social justice, you believe that all workers need and deserve a living wage. Full stop, no exceptions, no ifs, ands, or buts.

    Finally, and most fundamentally, it is not acceptable for someone who is not a member of a particular marginalized group to tell that group how they should and shouldn’t carry out their advocacy. Sheltered workshops are one of the main targets of the disability rights movement, precisely because they comprise one of the most harmful institutions for disabled people. To say that we should “be cautious about going after sheltered workshops” is akin to a white person in the sixties telling black civil rights leaders that they should be cautious about going after segregated businesses and public facilities, or that they should hold off on staging sit-ins and marches. As you’re no doubt aware, such admonitions were precisely the subject of MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

    1. Let the record show that this comment was intended as a response to Marilyn McMorrow's comment above. I appear to have clicked the wrong "reply" button.

  4. Shain, in theory, I can go with that. So you are saying that instead of being willing to be a training site, our school should have said: No thanks. When we need an employee, we will advertise and then hire.

    No problem, except that we would be unlikely to hire an applicant with no training, no experience, and no recs.

    Chris, some hiring is indeed a "civic duty." As I mentioned, many organizations hire DC Central Kitchen, not because they are the best caterers with the best record and prices, but because they train former prisoners to the former prisoners will one day be hirable. Similarly the firms that hire high school students to fill one position, day by day of the week, for a Cristo Rey school do so to fulfill a civic duty. It is not otherwise a wise or efficient decision to hire five persons for the same one-person job. You don't have to agree with that. But I wonder how we, the human community, are better off because employers do not take civic duty into their hiring?

    And, finally, Chris, the stereotypes you list about gossiping Women employees, or Latinos employees with insufficient English, or Black employees who are always late are not my own, so I don't understand the relevance.

    I don't intend to continue in this conversation since I was trying to make a point about the value I believe I saw a Sheltered Workshop, in combination with wider community support, provided about preparing disabled workers for the employment market. You all don't agree and think the idea itself is unjust. Respectfully, we disagree.

    1. Or pay your trainees. Ask yourself, if the trainees or employees were universally of any other marginalized group, if the program through which they were hired through exclusively placed people of color, women, gay people, etc. in positions that paid even under the lowest amount that is seen as legally acceptable to pay the rest of the population, and those entities existed because the prevailing viewpoint in society was "Oh well, you know [insert group here], they wouldn't get hired for any higher wages," would you be okay with that? If you're not, I'd like to know, as a disabled person - what makes us so different?

    2. How do non-disabled employees break into the highly specialized field of janitorial so your school can hire them? Didn't someone have to hire them or let them work in the family shop or something?

      I was discriminated against for exactly the reasons you cite--being a person with a developmental disability with no related job experience--by the manager of a for-profit pathology laboratory. He recruited me for a project and expected me to work for months as an unpaid trainee while he decided whether or not I was qualified. You see, I'm on the autistic spectrum, and although my research project's use of fluorescence microscopy made me a good candidate for his project, I had no actual work experience after getting my MA Biology from a state university.

      Non-disabled employees with Master's degrees were paid about twice minimum wage when they started, and were not expected to work for months without pay and move closer to the lab so they could be on call (despite having no paycheck to show a prospective landlord).

      Although this wasn't part of a Section 14c program, he was using the same logic as you did. The Labor Board disagreed that my labor was not worth paying for, and regretted that they couldn't award more than minimum wage in the absence of an actual contract. He tried to argue that nobody else would hire an autistic, but the hearing officer thought that was a ridiculous argument for tricking me into "unpaid training."

      There are Federal and State labor laws that specify when internships and training programs need to pay learners at least minimum wage. I'm sure there are ways to train disabled workers how to push a broom or a mop (and be ready for work when the bus comes) before they go into the competitive workforce.

      And if they can't learn? Well, there's a concept called "the dignity of failure." You have the right to take chances and try to learn things, but there's no guarantee you'll succeed. If someone honestly can't meet the minimum standards (and plenty of incompetent and slacking non-disabled people seem to have jobs even in this economy) then they can either find something that's a better fit or not work. There is no dignity in being guaranteed a job at $0.25/hr just because someone decided you can't even do 5% of the work of a "real worker." Find the person a job they can do well enough to earn minimum wage, or let them volunteer alongside non-disabled volunteers (for similar amounts of hours--not a 40-hour free workweek if the other volunteers do one 4-hour shift a week) if they'd rather do that than be idle.

  5. In a word great post. I’m looking forward to your next submit, I’ll.. equal pay act Fair labor standard act is working for United state Federal and local law relating labor standards and to help all employer their right and law under role of law. All worker can be conscious about any kind of the labor law to read http://flsa.net/

  6. I admit I haven't read everything here- but I am in complete agreement with you, Lydia. I (as a person on the spectrum who works a low wage retail job) lobbied for raising the minimum wage in my state (MN) and we won- but the whole time, I couldn't stop thinking about folks in sheltered workshops. The one caveat I would say is that if we abolish sheltered workshops we need to replace them with better programming. Because unfortunately what often happens is one program for disabled folks is gotten rid of, and not replaced with something better. I think the emphasis should be on helping people with disabilities get out of the house and do something they enjoy- whether it's making money or not. And if it's paid labor, it should be at the same rate as nondisabled workers. After all, what century are we living in? BTW, I just wrote an essay on my blog about including autistics in churches. Tell me what you think.

  7. subminimum wage is not only illegal but immoral as well section 14c needs to abolished it's 100 perceny wrong warehousing the disabled/ non disabled is sheltered workshop correction sheltered sweatshop goodwill industries is one example of the disabled/non disabled being used for cheap labor while the ceos make six figures they should live in poverty food stamps and ssi are not a monthly luxury to goodwill industries quit exploiting the disabled/non disabled with penny wages the non profit charity is using section 501c as a way to avoid paying taxes on their revenue making billionx of dollars/year i will report the non profit as a fraud to any one don't become a slave for goodwill

  8. yes we can end subminimum wages for the disabled and non disabled tell goodwill industries to stop paying penny wages because a company called orc inc in texas was paying a non disabled below minimum wage they didn't tell him any thing vocational rehabilitation is a waste of time they will refer you to a sheltered same thing happebed to me back in november 1984 they had file on it was marked confidential judy lockhart was who i met with a month later she called and told me you have to go the sheltered workshop no i don't want to work there 1986 someone come to the house talking to my brother telling him to calling corparation of guardianship industrial services i told him i don't to go the sheltered workshop i met with her her again she told me i'm working at goodwill industries i was not told the same thing either the pay me $1.00/hour and 0.08 lousy cents to assemble spindle adapters the pay based on productivity don't go to vocationl rehabliltation it's a waste of time they will refer you to a sheltered workshop/sweatshop their lunch money program is a joke too $1.50/day

  9. i say yes we can end sub minimum wage for the disabled/non disabled goodwill industries is one example i was referred to goodwill industries by my former vocational rehabilitation counselor judy lockhart over a year earlier she wanted me to work at the sheltered workshop industrial services of guilford i told her no some one came to our house talking to me and my brother she told him to call corporation of guardianship call industrial services i told him i don't want to go the sheltered workshop they warehouse the disabled non disabled in a segregated workshop setting from the general public it's wrong and immoral to treat the disabled non disabled as slaves doing menial tasks for $8.00/day or less to goodwill industries shame on you for paying pennies per hour i am a former goodwill industries worker 34 days in a segregated warehouse setting i quit i was paid $1.00/hour for doing boring stuff another i was paid 0.08 to assemble spindle adapters for each one they tell me i have to assemble in one hour for lousy piece rate pay paid by the piece one time i had to take clothes out of trailer that had mildew on them guess where they up in the compactor going to the landfill don't donate to goodwill at all cash donation or clothing they don't care at all

  10. sheltered workshops don't teach job skills goodwill industries runs a sheltered workshop for those who think goodwill industries does not run a sheltered go to goodwill and beside their retail store is a warehouse they have a sheltered workshop 30 years ago today i quit the pay the disabled non disabled sub minimum wage i made $1.00/hour i did not have a intellectual or developmental disability the vocational rehabilitation training program is a joke my ex counselor told i would be paid based on my productivity in other words i'm going to be a slave for goodwill it's civil rights violation and human rights violation write your local goodwill industries and tell them you will not donate and pay their workers $7.25/hour or more they can afford to pay it


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