Will Congress lastly finish the subminimum wage for staff with disabil

This article is from Capital & Main, an award-winning California-based publication covering economic, political, and social issues.

John Anton’s first job, sweeping floors and packing goods, wasn’t much different from many early jobs. The problem was, it was a dead end.

And because the company had a state contract that gave him a special exemption, Anton was legally paid less than the minimum wage and received no tip. The chances of advancement were also slim. “It was very boring,” said Anton in a recent interview with Capital & Main.

Anton, who has Down syndrome, stated, “I’ve always asked for more satisfying tasks, but my supervisors said they couldn’t do that. I’ve wasted my brain. “

His job was part of an 83-year New Deal-era derogation from the Fair Labor Standards Act that allowed “sheltered workshops” that enabled such subliminal wage standards.

Anton, 53, quit his job decades ago, but the guidelines behind such workshops remain. And regardless of the intentions of members of Congress in passing the bill, it is clearly inconsistent with modern disability rights.

Still, companies can still pay workers with disabilities significantly less than the state minimum wage, which is just $ 7.25 an hour, based on the premise that they can acquire skills and move up towards better employment.

The Ministry of Labor estimates that nearly 1,300 different employers use or have applied for “14c certificates” that make such jobs possible. Definitive data is hard to come by, but according to a report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released last year, between 100,000 and 400,000 people with disabilities are believed to be doing such poorly paid work.

Anton has grown to be an outspoken advocate for Americans with disabilities to lead meaningful, integrated lives and became a lawmaker for the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress. There he campaigns for opportunities for people with Down syndrome and other disabilities and in 2014 helped to pass the Real Lives Bill, which makes it possible to tailor government development services to the needs of each individual.

Anton endorses another bill introduced in April by Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and Robert Scott (D-VA) in the House of Representatives that would phase out the workshops for the disabled. In theory, proponents say that this would prevent people with disabilities from getting stuck in low-paid dead ends.

A relic from another time

Originally written to encourage the recruitment of disabled veterans, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal package. Regulation 14c of the Act empowers employers who are permitted to hire and train people with disabilities at subliminal wages. Participating employers are also obliged to regularly review the quality of the work performed and to consider wage increases.

Sheltered workshops may have been created with the best of intentions, but the concept has become a relic, say advocates of reform. Not enough organizations follow the spirit or wording of the law, explain it and point to two federal reports that conclude that people in separate workshops neither move on nor find their way into integrated employment.

A report published in March by the Government Accountability Office detailed the barriers to transitioning from low-minimum wage jobs. According to the GAO, there is a lack of job coaching and transportation, as well as poor accounting by organizations hiring workers under 14c. Among more than 1,200 employers who have received or applied for 14c certificates, the organization found that “little is known about the extent to which individuals have successfully transitioned into competitive employment”.

And a report released last year by the US Civil Rights Commission gave an even harsher rating of 14c, stating that sheltered workshops keep disabled workers trapped in “exploitative and discriminatory” jobs. According to the report, the average wage for tens of thousands of people working under 14c is only $ 3.34 an hour – less than half the state minimum wage – for tasks like bagging newspapers and hand-shredding papers. Their wages are based on calculations of how long it takes each employee to complete their job compared to an employee without disabilities.

The report concludes that under 14c, people with disabilities who receive sub-minimum wages “are not afforded the same protection or opportunities … for people working at or above the minimum wage”.

Some advocates of disability rights support the House of Representatives bill to repeal 14c, which is expected to be supplemented by an accompanying Senate bill. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) had introduced a similar bill in the last Congress.

“People with disabilities are a few steps back when applying [for jobs] because discrimination begins in elementary school, ”said Sara Hart Weir, former CEO of the National Down Syndrome Society. “You will be put on a different educational path, and at 21 there is nowhere else to go than in workshops for the disabled to further your education.”

Weir and other activists point out another problem with 14c: it classifies sheltered workshop jobs as training, and that loophole means they are not subject to OSHA regulations.

The legislation introduced by Reps Rodgers and Scott – the Transformation to Competitive Integrated Employment Act, or HR 2373 – would stop new 14c certificates and require employers with currently affected workers to raise wages to the minimum wage or higher within five years. Another condition is to help workers transition to better jobs.

The bill is supported by more than a dozen disability rights organizations, including the National Disability Rights Network. But not every lawyer agrees with the abolition of workshops for disabled people. Two of the eight civil rights ombudsmen voted against the recommendation of the USCCR 2020 report, saying that the abolition of sheltered workshops would remove the choice of people with disabilities, they would be unemployed and worse off. And some workers’ family members and other advocates testified before the commission in 2019 that quitting sheltered workshops would “eliminate a vital employment option” and relegate them to disabled day programs where they learn skills but earn no wages.

If the Conversion to Competitive Integrated Employment Act were passed, it would allocate $ 300 million to ease the transition away from sheltered workshops, though it is vague what it would replace.

At last year’s campaign, Joe Biden, a long-time advocate for labor laws and for people with disabilities, promised to end sheltered workshops and replace them with “competitive, integrated” employment opportunities.

Proponents say he could finish 14c with the stroke of a pen now, but they are waiting to see how HR 2373 plays out as they believe it could happen.

A generation after the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed, several federal statutes have failed to abolish below-minimum wages for disabled citizens, even though some states – including Vermont, Alaska, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, and New Hampshire – already have such below-average pay abolished.

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