It's Time to Stand Up Against Subminimum Wages for People With Disabilities

Allison Boot-Wheelin' Wordsmith
Factory workers, black-and-white vintage image.

How do you think people around the country would react if the government suddenly passed a law stating that people with blue eyes would be paid less to perform jobs than people with brown, green or hazel eyes?

Chances are they would be in an uproar and take a stand against the government for passing a law solely dependent on something like eye color, which no one can control. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about subminimum wage laws, which allow companies to pay people with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage, even though people cannot help having disabilities any more than people can help their eye color.

Many people with disabilities earn pennies per hour in sheltered workshops — and it’s legal. NPR reports that such sheltered worksites are regulated by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which allows companies to pay subminimum wages based on how productive a person with a disability is compared to a worker without a disability doing the same task. “Productivity” is measured by means such as “time/motion studies” that purport to determine how quickly a worker with a disability completes a task compared to an “average” i.e. non-disabled worker.

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The NPR article goes on to detail how the law was originally intended to encourage the hiring of veterans with disabilities, but has come under fire in recent years for reinforcing poverty and the segregation of those with disabilities.

The fact that this problem still exists in a country where the idea of nearly doubling the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour has been a hot-button issue is ludicrous. Abled people are assumed to be productive, meaning someone who is a complete slacker would automatically get $15 an hour, yet workers with disabilities, who are often very enthusiastic and dedicated to their jobs, would still have to prove they “deserve” minimum wage. In what way does that make any sense?

As a disability advocate, I’ll tell you that it makes no sense at all. Advocates fought for years to have equal rights for people with disabilities in all aspects of public life, including employment, protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The rights we gained under the ADA should not be threatened by another law, especially a law that is clearly outdated.

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Unfortunately, there are many people who disagree with me and support subminimum wage by saying that people with intellectual disabilities are happy to work regardless of their wage. Additionally, supporters of subminimum wage believe that working is what impacts self-esteem and not wages earned, so their wages do not matter. In a world where the housing and job markets are flooded with competition, and the majority of people with disabilities live in poverty, the idea that wages earned do not matter is absurd.

Personally, I’d like to ask the lawmakers without disabilities who support subminimum wage a couple of questions. Firstly, I’d like to ask them if they would be OK with being compared to other lawmakers and being paid based on their perceived performance? Secondly, if given a chance to speak to a supporter of subminimum wage, I’d question if pay based on productivity is fair?

Lawmakers have told advocates from various states that it would take too long and be too costly to outlaw subminimum wages, but that has not stopped advocates from fighting for “real jobs and real wages” for people with disabilities. Advocates scored a small victory in 2014, when President Obama signed an executive order raising the minimum wage for workers employed by federal contractors, including those with disabilities, to $10.10. This executive order is still in effect, despite President Trump attempting to overturn it. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, as of 2019 New Hampshire, Maryland, Alaska, Texas, Oregon, and Nevada have either eliminated subminimum wages or have passed bills that phase out subminimum wages for people with disabilities over the next few years. These small victories are proof that subminimum wages can be outlawed. However, the fact that only a few states have gotten rid of such laws shows we still have a long way to go before subminimum wages are outlawed nationally.

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I hope this article inspires others to join the fight and stand up against subminimum wages. If abolishing the subminimum wage is something you believe in, there are a few ways you can make your voice be heard. Contact your state senator and U.S. Congressional representative to express why subminimum wages should be outlawed. Start a petition to outlaw subminimum wages and get others to sign it. Support presidential candidates who would abolish subminimum wages. Remember — nothing about us without us.

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