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May 13, 2019

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Fair Wages for People With Disabilities - The Ugly Truth Behind Sheltered Workshops

As middle-class Americans, we fight a lot of battles each day. We fight to keep improving in our careers. We fight to get our kids into the best schools. Some of us might even fight just to get out of bed. But the most important thing we can fight for – as Americans and as humans – are our rights, especially when it comes to those who are unable to fight for themselves.

Social Justice Roulette: Which Cause Will You Fight for Today?

We’re living in a political and social tempest. We have an enormous, and often overwhelming, amount of information at our fingertips. Technology is evolving before our very eyes, and we’re grasping for control over it. Social media, which used to be a fun way to pass the time, has become a pivotal yet corruptible distributor of information. Some days, it’s just too much. You’d better put on your blinders if you want to check Twitter lately, else you’ll be inundated with retweets of the POTUS threatening nuclear war (again) or barraging his adversaries with insults (for the 400th time). Going on Facebook is an exercise in sheer willpower – do you tell your uncle Ron his views on transgender people are narrow-minded, or would you rather not get into a Facebook war today? Social media fatigue is as common as the cold these days.

My point is this: we’re collectively suffering from information overload, and it’s making us all tired and agitated. We’re exhausted from fighting our own battles, yet every day there’s a new petition, a new vote, a new argument on our timelines, all begging for our attention. How are you supposed to know where to invest your time and energy? There’s just so much! But the real tragedy here isn’t the immobilizing listlessness we’re all feeling lately – it’s the people that don’t get the attention they deserve because of this apathy, and the battles they’re left to fight on their own.

The Legislative Atrocity You Probably Haven’t Heard About

Full disclosure: I’m about to light a little fire under your butt. During the Senate health committee hearing last October, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts spoke about fair wages and equal rights. It’s a subject that’s made headlines quite a bit this year. We read a lot about the gender wage gap, equal opportunity, diversity – the list goes on. What we don’t hear much about is how Americans with intellectual disabilities are treated in the workplace. As you can probably guess by now, it’s not well. Senator Warren mentions just a few examples:

“In Rhode Island, Pedro, a 25-year-old man with an intellectual disability, spent three years sorting and packing buttons. Pedro’s boss described him as an excellent worker. He was paid 48 cents an hour.
In New York, workers with disabilities packaged pharmaceuticals at a non-profit organization. They were paid 33 cents an hour. The CEO, by the way, was paid more than $400,000.
In Iowa, dozens of adult men with intellectual disabilities worked at a turkey processing plant. They began work every day at 3 o’clock in the morning, and they were housed in a crowded schoolhouse together. They were paid $2 a day.”

Pretty disgusting, right? Shockingly, this practice is completely legal, thanks to a tiny loophole in the Fair Labor Standards Act, section 14(c). This antiquated legislation (originally passed in 1938) allows employers certified as “sheltered workshops” to pay subminimum wages to workers based on their assumed productivity. By law, an employer can look at a person with a disability and say: “you only function at 30% productivity, so you get 30% of the normal wage” – and the only permission the employer needs to do so is a dinky certificate from the Department of Labor. More than 2,000 U.S. employers currently hold these certificates, and many of them never even applied with the DOL. Talk about discrimination! Senator Warren asks David Mank, a disabilities expert at the hearing, to clarify:

Sen Warren: “I want to make sure we’re all following this, so I want to ask this question very clearly: a worker with a disability can be paid less than a worker without a disability for doing exactly the same job?”
Mank: “That is correct.”

Fair labor standards my ass.

#Sorry Not Sorry

If it sounds like I’m a little angry, it’s because I am. Senator Warren’s examples are not fabricated; this really happens, and it happens a lot. As someone with a Down Syndrome sibling, I can personally confirm this. When we were kids, my sister participated in a work program through her school, where she made about 25 cents an hour sorting and packaging plastic utensils. At the time, I thought it was neat that she got to learn work skills while getting paid for it. Little did I know, this wasn’t just a nifty skills program for kids with disabilities; the sheltered workshop model - once thought to be helpful - has been corrupted by employers and used to exploit disabled people throughout their careers.

I’d like you to take a moment to imagine trying to live on a wage of 25 cents an hour. That’s a mere $10 for a forty-hour week of tedious, somewhat physically-demanding work. That’s $520 per year. I don’t know about you, but that wouldn’t even cover 1/3rd of my bills for a month. What’s more, many people with disabilities need comprehensive and ongoing medical care and supervision, which isn’t cheap. When they can’t rely on their wages to pay for their care, the burden falls on the parent – or the state. Most depend heavily on Medicare and Social Security – necessary funding which our President and many of his supporters in Congress are trying to cut.

It’s Time to Get Rid of the Monster Under the Bed

The effects of astronomically disproportionate wages reach far beyond doubling the poverty level for people with disabilities. Essentially, they create a box in which the disabled are trapped until someone can help them out. It becomes nearly impossible for people with disabilities to move out of poverty and join the competitive job market because they aren’t offered opportunities to learn new skills. They become isolated from their peers and their communities. Most are kept in the dark as to what’s going on; meanwhile, legislators and employers propagate the short-sighted theory that it’s better than having no job opportunities at all. Like countless others, the disabled are oppressed by the system so their employers can continue to reap the benefits of cheap labor.

This problem has been ignored for far too long. As of 2017, only a handful of states have eliminated the “sheltered workshops” law. The issue, perhaps, isn’t that people don’t want to fight for this cause; it’s that an alarming number of people simply don’t know about it. Each of us has a long list of causes we’re already fighting for, and for whatever reason, this one doesn’t make headlines as often as it should. In the neverending fight for pay parity and diversity, we must not leave people with disabilities behind. 14(c) is an ugly and archaic monster that must be brought into the light and abolished. As Elizabeth Warren said at the hearing:

“I don’t think most Americans know that this kind of discriminatory treatment is perfectly legal, but I’ll bet that if they did, they’d agree that individuals with disabilities ought to be paid fairly for their work.”

Well, Senator Warren, I couldn’t agree more.

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