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.
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 (email@example.com)
Portia Wu (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In your emails to the Department of Labor, contact:
Matthew Colangelo (Colangelo.Matthew@dol.gov) and "cc"
ODEP Assistant Secretary Kathy Martinez (email@example.com).