One Step Forward

On February 12th, it became easier for some individuals with disabilities to build financial assets. On this day, President Obama made good on his promise to raise the minimum wage for Federal contract workers to $10.10 per hour. In an Executive Order, the President outlined the details, which are included in a Fact Sheet (view it here). He made history by including workers with disabilities – including those currently paid less than minimum wage! Although this action only effects service workers – those working in food service, janitorial, and grounds crews, for example – it is estimated that thousands of workers who would otherwise be paid an average of $2.50 will make real wages for the work they do, beginning January 1, 2015.

We applaud the President and the US Department and the US Department of Labor for taking this important step to chip away at an archaic and discriminatory practice.

There are a few important things we can celebrate about the President’s action. For example:

The President of the United States made it clear that workers with disabilities should be paid a livable wage for their work. This is an important “bully pulpit” statement. It’s also the first time any enforceable federal action contradicts 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which allows for sub-minimum wage payment to workers with disabilities.  

Some people with disabilities will actually benefit, making their chances for financial self-sufficiency much greater.  

That said – there is so much more to do. Here’s why–

The numbers of people benefiting from this action will be small. Many of the workers involved in service contracts are already making minimum wage or above. This action helps a tiny fraction of the estimated 420,000 people still subjected to “wages” less than minimum wage.

It does nothing to mandate integrated work – many of the workers with disabilities in federal service contracts work in enclaves – and remain separated from the rest of the community.

It does nothing to confront the prevailing belief that measuring “productivity” of workers against arbitrary standards is a real measure of their actual worth.  Productivity measures will still play a role in determining an employee’s wage.

This is why H.R. 831, The Fair Wage for Workers with Disabilities Act of 2013, is so important. This bill calls for the phasing out of certificates that allow sub-minimum wage payment over a three year period. Sixty-five congressional representatives have co-sponsored the bill: find out if yours has here. If not, please ask them to co-sponsor H.R. 831 by following the prompts at http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/.

TASH joined with the Collaboration to Promote Self Determination, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and many other advocacy organizations to call on the President to include people with disabilities in his Executive Order. TASH’s Policy Statement on Subminimum Wage (2012) states:

While section 14(c) was intended to prevent the curtailment of opportunities for people with disabilities to work in the mainstream workforce, the program has largely become a tool for Medicaid-funded habilitation service providers to maintain artificial and segregated work environments which have proven ineffective in enabling individuals with disabilities to gain the competencies, skills and opportunities to transition to employment in the general workforce at competitive wages. These segregated environments are also in contradiction with the intent and spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Supreme Court’s Olmstead decision. Other public funding streams and proven rehabilitation strategies now exist for enabling individuals with disabilities, who might otherwise be paid sub-minimum wages, to obtain and maintain employment in the general workforce. There is no longer a need, nor a justification for the continuation of section 14(c).