Subminimum Wage: How a Law Allows Employers to Pay 22 Cents an Hour

goodwillOn Tuesday, Equal Pay Day, our Republican bros in Washington DC decided that they don’t want fair wages for women. Since they don’t care about fair wages of any kind, this is not a shock. Let’s keep pressing the issue and exposing how this War on Women is at least partially an economic one. Patriarchy has for so long relied on cheap or nonexistent wages that the Grand Ol Patriarchy party is expected to continue keeping wages ridiculously low for women, People of Color, and People with Disabilities. Today, I want to focus on this last group, because few are focusing on these adults who make as little as 22 cents an hour on subminimum wages legally right here in the United States.

If you’re like me, the first you probably heard the term “Subminimum Wage” was in February when President Obama ushered a decree ending the discriminatory practice among federal contractors. The reach of the decree is very limited, though, which is partially the fault of an obstructive congress. Yet, what Obama was able to do is bring a conversation that is largely invisible to a far more prominent place. How do we treat people with physical, psychological and cognitive disabilities in the work place (and how they are able to operate and maneuver in the rest of society through finances)?

Subminimum wage is not something we’re often aware of in progressive circles – in fact, we’re pretty astounded that actual minimum wages are still so low. The fact that people legally make less than that in these here wealthy United States? And yet here it is in the Department of Labor website:

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) provides for the employment of certain individuals at wage rates below the minimum wage… [In addition to students] are individuals whose earning or productive capacity is impaired by a physical or mental disability, including those related to age or injury, for the work to be performed.

In accordance with the idea that those most affected are the best consultants, today we are talking with Ms. Andrea Chandler, a disability rights activist who is a goat-herder by trade. Andrea is active on the Twitters as CivilWarBone and there reminds me and other able-bodied progressives that the rights and lives of People with Disabilities (PWD) are often ignored in progressive spaces. Additionally, Andrea advocates on local, state and national levels, she mentors young folks, strategizes and networks with other activists, and is involved in connecting young people in the area to the disability community. She jokes that with her house full of bottle-feeding goats, she’d welcome a desk job at an NGO.

And I thank her for this enlightening interview.

What is your general overview of the minimum wage exemption for workers with disabilities?

It’s unethical exploitation, plain and simple. Sheltered workshops with minimum wage exemptions are supposed to be teaching PWD actual vocational skills as a stepping stone to a job that pays a legitimate wage. Unfortunately most of them aren’t, and are being used as just one more way to isolate PWD out of mainstream society so the non-disabled don’t have to look at us. Goodwill is a notorious offender, paying hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to its CEO and pennies per hour to disabled employees. Then there’s even worse violations of our human rights, like Henry’s Turkey Service.

Should the exemption remain? Should it be modified? Should it be abolished?

The exemption should be abolished, although this would make things tricky–see response to next question. The exemption is based on the theory that disabled employees will do only a fraction of the work of non-disabled employees and therefore should receive only a fraction of the pay. At some places, like Goodwill, disabled employees are tested yearly against a standard based on the ideal non-disabled employee in that job, and their wages adjusted according to their performance on that test. Leaving aside the unfairness of determining wages on this basis – how many non-disabled employees would out-perform their employer’s idea of what an ideal employee would accomplish – it’s clear that disabled employees are working hard enough for Goodwill’s CEO to get a fat paycheck. Shouldn’t they receive at least minimum wage since the company is doing so well off their labor?

There is some protest that the increased wages could mean the end of other necessary conditions for the survival of PWD, such as Medicaid and assisted living arrangements. Are these fears justified?

This is a very valid fear. SSDI, SSI, Medicare, Medicaid, and other social supports are set up so that to receive them you have to live in abject poverty, while barely providing enough to keep a person alive. Given the way companies will seize in any legal loophole to avoid paying benefits like adequate health insurance, PWD often find themselves forced into unemployment or exploitative employment in sheltered workshops in order to keep the benefits that keep them alive. This does a gross disservice to the economy and the taxpayer, it’s better to have people who want and are able to work employed and providing for themselves as much as they’re able. Many people with disabilities would love to be able to work without losing access to medical care.

What are some pragmatic, short-term, and/or long-term goals that may need to be addressed along with the modification/erasure of the exemption?

Short and long term the solutions are the same: change the rules for social supports so that extreme poverty is not a requirement for survival with a severe disability. We’re seen the first step in some states with the Medicaid expansion under the ACA, but we have to keep pushing.

What do you think would be a necessary next step for the rights of disabled employees?

It’s a first step on a long, long road. We have so far to go. We should absolutely be concerned with worker representation and with working conditions, as things like Henry’s Turkey Service prove. It’s very frustrating to me that the wider labor rights movement just does not give a damn about the issue of sheltered workshops, despite the exploitation and sometimes horrifying working conditions occurring there. We PWD are shut away and therefore invisible to a movement whose skill set could help us so much. But no labor organizer is going to walk into thrift stores.

Does there seem to be an increased awareness in the general public about disability rights in the workforce as a result of the president’s action? [Note: This interview took place shortly after the announcement. If anything, Andrea’s answer seems prophetic.]

I wish. I am cynical as hell about workers with disabilities getting any mainstream support whatsoever. We’re unemployed at about twice the rate of the non-disabled despite government initiatives designed to encourage hiring us, but the mainstream is silent. We shout at the top of our lungs about the exploitation going on at Goodwill and other sheltered workshops, and every time non-disabled people act like it’s the first time we’ve brought it up. At this point I absolutely feel as if we are pretty much on our own, as we were when we got the Americans with Disabilities Act passed. We can do this ourselves, we’ve won fights before, but it would go a lot faster if the bulk of non-disabled progressives would stop pretending disability issues don’t exist and raise their voices with ours.

Are there other things you’d like addressed that I didn’t cover in these questions?

Part of the problem with the labor rights issue as it concerns disability is that the face of disability that the non-disabled public is comfortable with is that of a smiling attractive little kid, and the voices the non-disabled public wants to hear are non-disabled parents of those kids talking about what a blessing they are. Once you’re a disabled adult, the non-disabled get really uncomfortable and would prefer you go away. This is particularly true if you engage in any self-advocacy whatsoever; we’re meant to be grateful for the crumbs we’re given and stay out of sight and out of mind unless we’re being inspiring.

And of course, little kids don’t need jobs, so there’s no awareness surrounding the problems disabled workers face. Non-disabled people just aren’t interested. Being interested would interrupt their ability to feel good by giving clothes to Goodwill, ago [sic] they’d rather just not hear it.


When he’s not riding both his city’s public transit system and evil mayor, Jasdye teaches at a community college and writes about the intersection of equality and faith - with an occasional focus on Chicago - at the Left Cheek blog and on the Left Cheek: the Blog Facebook page. Check out more from Jasdye in his archives as well!


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