Judge rules against sheltered workshop’s subminimum wage practices

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Fair Pay

In a potentially groundbreaking decision, an administrative law judge ruled February 2 that an Ohio nonprofit must pay backpay to three workers, whom it previously was paying $2.50 an hour under a program that allows it to pay subminimum wages to certain workers with disabilities.

“The Seneca Re-Ad decision continues an encouraging trend toward equal justice and fair wages for workers with disabilities,” said Clyde Terry, chair of the National Council on Disability, in a news release. “Antiquated employment policies dating back eight decades are not only out of touch in today’s modern marketplace but also contrary to the goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)…Integrated, supported, and competitive employment is rapidly becoming the new normal for disabled workers.”

Seneca Re-Ad Industries is the holder of a Section 214(c) certificate, named after the section of the Fair Labor Standards Act that authorizes the Department of Labor to exempt employers from minimum wage and overtime protections, in exchange for hiring workers perceived as unemployable in the regular marketplace.

On November 17, Disability Rights Ohio, the National Federation of the Blind, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and the Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP filed a petition with the DOL, arguing that Seneca Re-Ad failed to demonstrate that three of its employees should fall under the program.

In making this argument, the petitioners pointed to a DOL requirement that certificate holders pay employees wages “commensurate” with other workers performing the same type, quality and quantity of work in the applicable geographic area.

In a 59-page opinion [PDF], the judge found that Seneca Re-Ad failed to meet its burden that the three employees’ disabilities limited their ability to perform their work duties, or provided the necessary objective and comparative data to support the employee’s $2.50-an-hour pay.

Accordingly, the judge ordered the nonprofit to return more than $17,000 to each of the three employees, as well as pay them the minimum wage moving forward.

“The opinion highlights that each of our clients brings valuable employment skills to the Seneca Re-Ad facility, and their value as workers should be respected,” DRO Attorney Barbara Corner said in a news release. “People with disabilities are full and equal members of society and should be paid fairly.”

Disability Rights Ohio and Disability Rights Washington, the publisher of Rooted in Rights, are the designated protection and advocacy agencies in Ohio and Washington, respectively, and are members of the National Disability Rights Network.