It has been legal for almost a century for companies to pay workers with disabilities just cents an hour. Employees have reportedThey will receive pennies in the paychecks. There is no limit to how much they may be paid.
This practice of paying “subminimum wage,” which the U.S. Department of Labor allows under the auspices of maintaining employment opportunities for people with disabilities, has also led to some workers being sequestered in workshops away from the regular workforce, where they have little opportunity to advance into other jobs. These workshops employ more than 1,500 people nationwide. 100,000 people with disabilitiesAt companies such as GoodwillDay service providers like Opportunity Village have been banned in 15 states.
Subminimum wage is “literally trapping disabled people in impoverished wages, meaning they are going to be reliant on other programs to keep them in housing, to keep them off the streets, to keep them from being able to receive health care service,” said Mia Ives-Rublee, the director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
The Build Back Better act, which is currently being negotiated in Congress, contains a small-known provision that could help to catalyze the complete federal repeal of the subminimum wages for people with disabilities. The proposed legislation would incentivize states to move away from the subminimum wage by providing grant funding to help companies offer those workers jobs alongside the rest of their workforce — paying minimum wage or higher.
These communities are most affected by efforts to reduce this subminimum wages. Women with disabilities typically earn less than men and are less likely be employed in integrated employment settings earning regular wages. Black, Asian American, Pacific Islander and Latinx people with disabilities have lower rates of employment in integrated positions.
- Women with disabilities make more than men. nearly $14,000 less annually than men with disabilities — in 2017, they averaged $31,855, compared with $45,475 for men, according to a report from the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
- Only 16% of women with disabilities were employed in integrated employment, compared to 20% of men.
- People of color were also less likely to be employed in the regular workforce. Only 14% of Black people, 12% of Asians, and 9 percent of Pacific Islanders who have disabilities had integrated jobs.
- According to a 2020 report, employees with disabilities who work for companies that pay the minimum wage average $3.34 an hour and work approximately 16 hours per week, the company pays about $13.34 an hour. U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. (The data are not broken down by gender. That means they are earning about $214 a month — 20 percent of the federal poverty threshold for one person.
Monica Soares is deaf. She spent her early career working in a disability workshop in California. The 19thThrough an interpreter, she explained that her hourly rate for packing candies into boxes was $2-3 per hour.
“I felt bad, knowing I was being paid less than minimum wage,” Soares told The 19th.
On such a low wage, Soares said that she struggled to pay for food: “I was hungry and worried I might die.”
Soares has made a lot of progress since then. STEP, a large agency for people with disabilities in Sacramento, provides job coaching. The agency’s customized employment program supports 50 people, about half of whom have previously worked for subminimum wage.
Soares has been an administrative worker at Sacramento County Superior Court since 2019. She is paid $15 per hour.
“I buy a lot of food. My cupboard and refrigerator are full now,” Soares said. She can also buy Christmas gifts and visit her mother in another city using her own money. She is saving money for new clothes and feels more respected at work.
“I get treated like an equal,” she said. “People wave and acknowledge me.”
Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat who has advocated for the Build Back Better Act change, called the current version of the law “discrimination, plain and simple.”
“No one should be paid less just because they have a disability,” Murray told The 19th. “We’re doing an all-out effort. I have talked to the Department of Labor, I’ve talked to states, we’re looking at legislative language and we’re working on efforts through [the Build Back Better Act] to help states transition to a place in this country where we pay all our workers what they are worth.”
The Build Back Better Act was not passed by the House of Representatives. They are unlikely to support it in Senate. However, the language that aims to reduce the use of the subminimum wages for people with disabilities is removed from legislation that has bipartisan support in both chambers. A 2019 version of the billThe U.S. House approved the bill, which was introduced by Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris rodgers and progressive Democrats like Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Olmar. The Senate version, which was presented in November, is cosponsored and sponsored by Sen. Bob Casey (a Democrat from Pennsylvania) and Sen. Steve Daines (a Republican form Montana).
“There is dignity and hope in work, so we should be doing all we can to support Americans with disabilities in the workforce, not treat them unfairly,” Daines said in a November news releaseWhen his bill was first introduced. “Americans with disabilities should never be paid below the minimum wage.”
The Build Back better provision doesn’t require the complete elimination of the subminimum wages for people with disabilities. Murray said the route the measure is taking through Congress — it’s folded into the “budget reconciliation bill” — requires it to be budgetary in nature, hence the grant funding approach.
Democrats attempted to raise minimum wage for all workers from $15 to $15 an hour earlier in the year. This was done using the same reconciliation process used to pass Build back Better. This was a mistake. blocked by the Senate parliamentarianHe ruled that wage increases were not permitted under the current Senate rules. The decision was hotly contestedProgressive Democrats also impacted a provision to end subminimum wage for people with disabilities.
The Senate is currently considering a new provision in Build back Better. It was designed with that decision in view, according to Julie Christensen (executive director of the Association of People Supporting Employment First) and national expert on the subminimum wage for persons with disabilities. She described this incentive-only structure as “the carrot on the end of a stick.”
The bill is set aside $300 millionThe majority of the grants would provide five-year grants for states that require their employers to pay workers who are disabled no less than their peers doing similar work. The grants would also support workers with disabilities in finding jobs where they can be part of the regular workforce.
The bill provides $24 million in support for states that have eliminated the subminimum wages for people with disabilities, or are in the process. Seven states, including New Hampshire and Alaska, have already banned it. California and Delaware are two other states that have passed similar legislation.
This bill will be used in conjunction with other changes that are already in progress to eliminate the subminimum wages for people with disabilities. Medicaid will implement a new rule in 2023 that requires all community- and home-based services programs that work with people with disabilities, to offer integrated work options.
These initiatives together should accelerate the trend towards moving away from subminimum wage, segregated workspaces. According to the Department of Labor there was a 56 percent decrease in them between 2013-2021.
“Even without this legislation, there’s a really steady drop-off in [workshop] employment,” said John Butterworth, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “An awful lot of providers are beginning to move out of subminimum wage work anyway.”
If the subminimum wage is eliminated for people with disabilities, it will invalidate a law that was originally created to encourage employers in hiring disabled veterans from the world wars and helping them to assimilate back into work. Unlike other subminimum wages — like the tipped wage for restaurant workers, for example, which is currently set at $2.13 an hour with the expectation that tips will push pay above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 — it has no floor in terms of how little employees can be paid. Workshop workers are paid according to productivity. This means that they can earn anywhere from cents to a few bucks an hour.
The subminimum wage is not the right wage for workers with disabilities. Subminimum wages workshops were intended to be vocational training centres for wounded veterans. However, they have become employment centers for people with lifelong intellectual or developmental disabilities. They were very rarely able to leave the workshop and did not go on to regular employment. A 2001 audit by U.S. Government Accountability Office found that only 5 percent of those workers were transitioning to other jobs with normal wages.
Disability advocates have been calling for the elimination of the subminimum wages for years. However, some parents have resisted, fearing that their children will not have enough employment options. Subminimum-wage workshops are also advocates for keeping the system as it is. Many double up as disability service providers, and use the profits to finance other disability support programs.
“We are still facing a bit of an uphill battle of educating businesses, educating organizations and educating parents about how this will help their children, how this will help their loved ones in gaining that economic equality that they all want,” Ives-Rublee said.
Kyle Stumpf, a person with Down syndrome who is mostly non-speaker, was working in a workshop after he graduated from high school in Iowa. He was happy there. His father Bill Stumpf describes Kyle as a happy person. But Kyle was capable and capable of more than anyone thought.
Kyle began working at a Papa John’s franchise in 2014. He clearly loved his new job and became a beloved member of the restaurant’s team.
“He’ll run to the car to go to work,” Bill said.
Kyle’s success and happiness changed how Bill thought about workshops. Since then, he has been a champion for integrated jobs for people who are disabled.
Strangely, COVID-19 highlighted the ways Kyle’s job had allowed him to thrive. He quit his job early in the pandemic; people with Down syndrome are more at risk. complications and deathCOVID. His family was concerned about his safety when he worked in a restaurant.
But it was obvious that Kyle struggled to be at home all day. His health even suffered. “Kyle really wanted to get back to work,” his father said.
After much thought and several vaccinations, Kyle is now back at work. His health has improved and he even got a raise recently: He’s being paid $8.25 an hour, one dollar above Iowa’s minimum wage.
Kelly Nye-Lengerman, the director of the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire, said that during her career working with people who were being paid subminimum wage, she learned that many of those jobs were not realizing workers’ full potential — and that the system needed to be restructured.
“We have this untapped resource of individuals and people who want to work, who have skills, who have never really been given the opportunity or the expectation that you can have paid employment,” Nye-Lengerman said. “And actually, if there’s a level of organizational commitment and leadership, it’s not as big of a transformation as we make the boogeyman out to be.”
She said that there will still be challenges in implementing new legislation.
Many workshops are part of day programs that people with disabilities attend. They offer a variety of services in large settings. Those providers transitioning from workshop settings to integrated employment will be going from a guarantee that someone will use their program 30 hours a week, for example, to a more fluid situation based on individual employers’ needs. Providers will find it much more economical to have people visit one facility rather than having them scattered at different employers. This means that more staff is needed to provide job coaching, support, and assistance.
The workforce needed for that support is also shrinking. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, October’s latest figures show that there are now 20,000 fewer people in residential intellectual and development disability facilities than a decade ago.
“If we don’t have a workforce to implement these changes, we cannot do it,” Nye-Lengerman said. “That’s actually, I would argue, what might be the fatal flaw of this at the moment. Not that emotionally and spiritually and politically, we can’t get behind some of these things. But who the heck’s going to do it?”
In order to ensure support from families, income ceilings on state and federal benefits for people with disabilities could be changed. If those employees with disabilities suddenly make too much money to qualify for support services — what is known as the benefits cliff — they could be far less motivated to leave subminimum wage jobs.
Advocates believe that codifying the law and a larger restructuring benefit and rate structures is required for these reasons.
The current bill “may be the best that we can do,” said Nye-Lengerman. “I’m excited about this because it’s the first time that this has gotten this far. It will have a positive result, I think. But the devil’s in the details.”