In January 2019, the minimum wage in the state of Colorado will take another leap toward a livable wage as the minimum hourly rate for most workers increases to $11.10.
Note that I say “most workers.” Few people are aware that in the United States, there is a special exception to the Fair Labor Standards Act that allows employers to pay subminimum wage for workers who have disabilities. These exceptions are allowed under 14c of the FLSA, and employers must receive a 14c certificate in order to pay wages lower than the minimum.
Around the nation, these 14c certificates are rarely held by small businesses or even national retailers. More than 98 percent of companies paying adults with disabilities subminimum wage are disabilities service providers. In Colorado, fully all of the 17 businesses with 14c certificates are organizations that provide services to people with intellectual or physical disabilities.
The practice of subminimum wage is defended by the argument that people with intellectual disabilities will not have the capacity to fully function in community jobs and would otherwise have no work at all. The subminimum wage settings are used as training situations, where people with disabilities can learn skills that they could use in future jobs. There is little evidence to support the assertion that such a system is effective. Most people with disabilities in these training centers (or sheltered workshops) stay in their training situation indefinitely and do not move into community jobs.
The many critics of subminimum wage see many problems with the situation, and the ineffectiveness is just the tip of the iceberg. A search of the U.S. Department of Labor website reveals case after case of investigations into subminimum wage situations that find people with disabilities being exploited and improperly paid, even with the subminimum wage allowance.
Most subminimum wage situations operate through contracts with other businesses. For instance, the training center is paid by ABC Eraser Co. to sort erasers into packages. Public programs such as Medicaid pay the training center to provide training and oversight. The training center then pays the workers less than minimum wage and pockets the difference.
Perhaps the most resounding critique, though, is that the practice of subminimum wage is based in the lie that people with disabilities are unable to contribute in a meaningful way and that their labor is not worth as much as a non-disabled person. Replace “people with disabilities” with any other marginalized group, and you will see how horrifying that sentence really is.
Case studies and employer experience betray the lie. With the right job matching and support, people with disabilities can even be more productive than their co-workers. Employers who hire people with intellectual disabilities report improved morale and reduced absenteeism throughout the workplace.
Rather than wasting precious resources on these isolating and exploitative “pretend” jobs, Colorado needs to focus on developing innovative practices to support people with intellectual disabilities in community employment. All workers deserve a living wage.
Tara Kiene is president/CEO of Community Connections Inc.