Getting to The Roots: Why Does Subminimum Wage Persist?

Outdoors. A tree surrounded by green grass is seen from the tree top down to its complex roots. The roots are surrounded by soil because they're all underground.

In 2018, the National Council on Disabilities reported that people with disabilities in the U.S. have decreased chances of finding work. In addition, the report found that disabled workers often work for subminimum wage, low wages, and under substandard employment contracts (i.e. in part-time jobs that offer no chance for advancement or benefits). While there has been some progress towards banning subminimum wage, as several states banned the use of subminimum wages for disabled workers and others are moving in that direction, the problem remains. Job seekers with disabilities continue to struggle to find work and disabled workers’ labor remains largely devalued in the U.S. labor market. This bothers and puzzles me. 

I first learned about subminimum wages as a grad student in rehabilitation counseling. The concept was strange to me as I immigrated to the US from the former Yugoslavia, which did not have such an arrangement. Both disabled, my father and I had been employed at competitive wages all of our lives; I couldn’t help but wonder how this option was even possible.

In a lively class discussion on the value of vocational rehabilitation, we debated the “need” for subminimum wage. Most students argued that people who couldn’t meet the productivity standards of the industry should not be paid the same as those who could. Sadly, only the instructor and I argued the opposite: all workers should be paid the same minimum, if not a living wage. Both sides presented very weak arguments based on purely articulated beliefs, void of any factual or historical evidence. 

I left the class that evening determined to get to the bottom of this problem. I wanted to answer the question: why is subminimum wage justifiable in the US? The search for answers to this and other questions related to employment of disabled workers has driven my academic career since. I found that a look at the historical roots of the ideology that employers, vocational rehabilitation experts, and policy makers have used to justify exploitation of disabled workers may explain why subminimum wages are still in place and what could be done to dismantle them.

The place of disabled workers in the U.S. labor market has been determined for centuries by the belief that people with disabilities should work for something other than wages. Throughout the history of disabled workers’ participation in the labor force, employers and vocational rehabilitation experts purported that what we primarily get in exchange for our labor power is solely the opportunity to work and a chance to pay back the cost of rehabilitation to rehabilitation experts and society.

The idea that disabled workers can and should be compensated in ways other than through fair remuneration originated in the early Industrial era. With the Industrial Revolution underway in 19th century U.S., the insistence that workers adapt their labor to the demands of industrialized production denied many disabled people a chance to work in factories. Machine-centered production lines required that a worker could maneuver their body according to the needs of the machinery.

Jobs were not given to those who could not meet the expectations of fast-paced manufacturing, long working hours, and the levels of physical and mental agility necessary to run a machine. “Feeble mindedness,” “deviancy,” “crippleness,” and similar labels operated interchangeably to mark those temporarily or permanently unemployed to justify their unemployment and resultant confinement to workhouses, prisons, and asylums.

At the same time that they claimed the unemployability of its inhabitants, superintendents of asylums used inmate labor to support their operation. During national work shortages, when their admissions would substantially increase, the institutions expanded to help store surplus labor.

During the time of widespread institutionalization in the 19th and early 20th centuries, inmates worked long hours under the auspices and supervision of institutions dedicated to providing them with vocational training and rehabilitation. Inmates farmed institutional lands, bent over sewing machines to produce home goods for sale, provided nursing care for their fellow inmates, and maintained the facilities that housed them. Sometimes they were “rented out” as farm hands or domestic servants.

The disabled, poor, and “deviant” were publicly regarded as eternally indebted to the private funders and the public authorities that supported the institutions. Those who operated the institutions considered the labor of inmates to be: 1) a product of the process of rehabilitation, 2) repayment of debt to the nation, and  3) a useful contribution to the institutions themselves.

In what we might call a mission statement of Pennsylvania’s Pennhurst State School, an asylum operating from 1908 to 1987, its superintendent wrote in 1926 that the aim of the institution was “to train each and every one of the patients so that they are more useful to themselves and those in charge of them, to eliminate social and other undesirable habits and replace these habits with habits of industry and habits that are socially acceptable.” The managers and funders of asylums often spoke of the therapeutic values that labor had on the inmates and patients. They regarded inmate labor as a path to rehabilitation of the unfortunate and the “deviant.” It also provided significant cost-saving measures for the funders.

Beginning in 1840, the cost of asylum operations shifted from local governments to state governments; in the 1970s, it transferred from the state to the federal government. The argument that rehabilitated labor leads to self-sufficiency was central to the requests for funds put forth by the superintendents to their private funders, local and state authorities, and later to the federal government.

But make no mistake: while they were claiming that the purpose of these businesses was training and rehabilitation, the superintendents had long known that these exploited workers did provide valuable labor. Isaac Newton Kerlin, superintendent of Elwyn Institute, clearly recognized that the asylums were employing disabled people. In 1888, he said that “the gardening, laundering, and cobbling of our feeble-minded employés [sic] find here an exchange which will never be criticized by outside ‘labor unions,’ nor reached by ‘labor legislation.’” Kerlin, thus, recognized both the value of disabled people’s labor for the institutions and the potential for exploitation of disabled workers for the benefits of an ableist society. 

In fact, early policies regulating the use of disabled labor—workmen’s compensation and subminimum wage provisions—exempted institutional labor. Organized labor increasingly disapproved of the enterprise, but never interfered in the business of institutionalized exploitation of disabled workers. The eight-hour day provisions limited exploitation of paid staff, which resulted in the decrease of community placements for disabled workers and an increase of their labor in the institutions. Kerlin had thus correctly predicted the course of history of disabled labor.

For decades, calculations of the value of disabled workers’ labor have not been based on the usual considerations of the financial profits that paid labor provides to employers and the needs of workers. Instead, disabled people have been paid based on the imaginary benefits that the opportunity to work might provide and the costs of their rehabilitation (which is mostly paid by public funds).

Proponents of institutional exploitation of disabled workers have not only introduced the idea that the labor power of disabled workers belongs, at least in part, to institutions, but they have also paved the way for legislation to apply this to non-institutionalized disabled workers as well. During the congressional hearings regarding the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (which made subminimum wage legal),  the idea that there is such a category as  “substandard workers” was endorsed by then Labor Secretary Frances Perkins. She was an influential voice in the creation of the New Deal and the first woman to serve as a cabinet secretary.

Although the phrase was not included in the Act, the idea that some workers should be paid less than minimum wage was legislated. Section 14 of the law, which allowed for sub-wages based on disability, still remains a legal scheme for remuneration of disabled workers at wages below legal minimums.

Despite ongoing advocacy from global disability rights and justice movements, multiple lawsuits addressing the exploitation of disabled workers, and the enactment of WIOA eight years ago, the discriminatory practice remains.  As the fight continues, and yet another bill to abolish subminimum wage is before Congress, the time has come to eradicate centuries-long misconceptions about the value of disabled workers’ labor.

We must finally abandon old ideology that serves as the basis for undervaluing workers with disabilities. The harmful belief that we work for opportunities and paybacks must be eradicated. The opportunity to work alone does not put bread on the table. It is the wages that workers earn that pay the bills. Talking about the past gives us the fortitude to change the future. The roots of exploitative practice are deep and have spread too far for too long. Let’s dig them out!


Andjela H. Kaur (she/they) studies political economy of disability and labor history of disabled people. She is a disabled worker currently employed by Penn State as an assistant teaching professor. When not working, they enjoy nature walks with their human and animal friends. You can reach out to her via email here.

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