The federal minimum wage is a hot topic of discussion in the offices of political leaders and at family dinner tables. Yet the wage gap doesn’t start at $7.25 an hour, but lower. That’s because people with disabilities are subject to a draconian practice called “subminimum wage.” Thankfully, this practice could end should a joint resolution (S. 533), a bill to end subminimum wage in South Carolina, receive the YES vote it deserves on the floor of the House of Representatives in the coming weeks. South Carolina could become the third state in the southeast following North Carolina and Tennessee, and the fourteenth state in the nation, to end subminimum wage.
In 1938 the Fair Labor Standards Act made sweeping reforms, for the betterment of laborers, leading to the development of today’s middle class. However, the world of nearly 100 years ago did not take kindly to the employment of people with disabilities. In a time when no opportunities were available for individuals with disabilities, the law, under section 14(c), established that employers could obtain a certificate to pay disabled employees less than the federal minimum wage. This was based on the perceived impact the employee’s disability had on their ability to perform the job. While the law might have intended for 14(c) programs to be a place where people with disabilities could learn employment skills and transfer to competitive, integrated employment, this is not what happens, lifetimes after its initial passing. Less than 5 percent of people working in sheltered workshops successfully transition out (Special Minimum Wage Program: Centers Offer Employment and Support Services to Workers With Disabilities, But Labor Should Improve Oversight, US General Accounting Office Report to Congressional Requesters, 2001).
Findings show that 14(c) programs are not working the way they were intended (Subminimum Wages: Impacts on the Civil Rights of People with Disabilities, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, September 2020). “Employment Training Centers,” or “Work Activity Centers,” as they are often called, prevent employees with disabilities from realizing their full potential while benefiting from both Medicaid funding and business contracts and profiting from the exploited labor of workers who perform for less than minimum wage. Continued failures in regulation and oversight by government agencies, such as the Department of Labor and Department of Justice, have allowed these programs to operate for decades without satisfying the goal of successfully transitioning people with disabilities to the competitive economy.
People with significant disabilities and their families are often told that there are no other options available to them. They are pressured by public systems and service providers to enter into a 14(c) program. According to the 2019 SC Employment First Study Committee Report, individuals with disabilities are routinely segregated in state-provided services, spending all day interacting exclusively with other similarly segregated individuals. Services are farcically called “career preparation” or “employment services,” creating the illusion of working towards more meaningful, challenging work, but in reality, individuals are stuck in these dead-end services for years.
Individuals are stuck for hours a day, for years on end, performing repetitive tasks, which teaches them no meaningful job skills, while being paid far less than the federal minimum wage. They do not work with their peers without disabilities. They are not taught or held to expectations of professionalism, like staying on task, which can make it difficult for them to adjust when they try to transition to work in the community. If the workshop does not have any contracts, there may be no work for them to do, meaning no pay at all.
Knowing that the employees of these workshops are “sheltered” from laws defining the minimum wage, it comes at little surprise that the impetus of being unvalued and unappreciated leads to abuse and neglect. One recorded instance was that of a woman who was left and locked in a bus for 2 consecutive days in 90-degree weather (Lawsuit: Woman with disability left on Burton Center bus 2 days straight, Index-Journal, March 5, 2021). It is problematic enough that people would be paid a wage on which it is impossible to support themselves, but people in these settings can also be denied the right to receive unemployment benefits or workers’ compensation for on-the-job injuries.
With discrimination, abuse, neglect, and lack of perceived value at the forefront of subminimum wage it is hard to imagine that there is an argument for the practice. Most often the question asked by people who do not have the privilege of understanding the capabilities of people with disabilities is, “Isn’t it fair for people with disabilities to be paid less if they work slower and produce less?” The answer is a resounding no, following a rejection of the premise of the question. People with and without disabilities may perform their job at lower or higher production rates. Ending subminimum wage is not about paying individuals for work they did not do. People with disabilities do not want special treatment. Most sheltered workshops focus on assembly work, even if this is not the type of work the individual wants to do. There is a lack of choice, and their rate of pay is based on doing a job that may or may not suit them.
The solution involves finding the right fit in the community, providing the appropriate training, and supplying reasonable accommodations to perform the necessary tasks. If people with disabilities are provided reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), they can perform the essential duties of their position. People with disabilities, like those without disabilities, deserve the opportunity to pursue jobs related to their interests and skillsets, where they can thrive and bring value to their employer.
“But what does this mean for taxpayers?” The answer is savings. The costs for supporting employees with disabilities in competitive, integrated employment shift downward over time compared to the continued upward cost of holding people in sheltered workshops. It makes financial sense for taxpayers to support the ending of subminimum wage (The cost-trends of supported employment versus sheltered employment, Robert Evert Cimera, Kent State University, Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 2008).
Currently, nearly 1,000 people with disabilities in South Carolina are making less than the minimum wage through these programs. South Carolina’s proposed legislation prioritizes the stability of these individuals. Should the bill pass, a task force would assemble to create a two-year transition plan to phase out subminimum wage by August 1, 2024. The transition would provide support to providers and participants of subminimum wage and not immediately put anyone out of a job. A meaningful transition ensures that those currently working under 14(c) employers can successfully transition to other types of employment. A meaningful transition means no one is left behind.
While laws and standards, such as the ADA, protect people with disabilities from general discrimination, our low expectations and assumptions about what a person can and cannot do based on their disability still exist. People with disabilities just want equal access to employment opportunities. It’s time that South Carolina steps up as a leader in disability employment, and recognizes the capabilities of the one in three South Carolinians with disabilities, by ending subminimum wage.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS …
(Via: Able SC)
Mary Alex Kopp is the Director of Public Relations and Special Events at Able South Carolina and a lifetime resident of rural South Carolina.
(Via: Able SC)
Kimberly Tissot is the President and CEO of Able South Carolina and an award-winning advocate of disability rights.
ABOUT ABLE SC …
Able SC is a change agent committed to fostering an equitable society that empowers individuals with disabilities to live fully-engaged and self-directed lives. Able SC is an organization led by individuals with disabilities that challenges stereotypes, protects disability rights, and champions social reform. To learn more about Able SC’s programs and services, please visit www.able-sc.org.
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