Subminimum wage proposal sparks controversy

This is a photo of coins on a scale.
Minimum Wage: $7.25

The U.S. Senate is set to hold hearings on a new proposal to provide safeguards for people with disabilities working for less than the minimum wage, triggering debate among a variety of disability advocacy groups.

The Fair Labor Standards Act, created in 1938, included a provision allowing for employers to pay certain individuals below the minimum wage, which now stands at $7.25 an hour. The move, aimed predominantly at people with disabilities and many types of students, was meant to prevent a loss of employment opportunities that could potentially result from the increased wage standards.

A new proposal, which has not been released to the pubic but has been circulated to disability advocacy groups, would provide new protections for these workers and establish additional standards for whom is eligible to work at subminimum wages.

Under the proposal, people with disabilities could work at subminimum wages if “they meet certain age-related requirements and if they do so while receiving job training designed to prepare them for competitive employment,” according to an article in Disability Scoop. For people with disabilities over age 24, the proposal would mandate employment counseling and a review of their employment situation every six months for the first year, and annually thereafter, to ensure they are on track to move out of a subminimum wage employment.

The proposal is part of the reauthorization Workforce Investment Act, a 1998 federal job training bill. The hearing is set for August 3 in front of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

The National Disability Rights Network, while acknowledging that the provisions aren’t as extensive as those proposed in its report calling for the end of subminimum wages, supports the proposal, calling  it “an important step forward” for the estimated 400,000 people with disabilities currently working for subminimum wages.

“Doing nothing to address the subminimum wage issue in the reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act is tantamount, in our minds, to support of the status quo,” said Eric Buehlmann, deputy executive director for public policy with the National Disability Rights Network.

Similarly, The Arc came out in favor of the proposal, saying that it provides new safeguards for workers with disabilities.

“It does create some system to make it more difficult to be referred to center-based services,” Julie Ward, a member of the public policy staff at The Arc, told Disability Scoop. “We know that people are being sent in this direction and there are no protections. This provides protections.”

In contrast, the National Federation of the Blind voted unanimously at its national convention to reject the proposal, saying it is unlikely to improve opportunities to people with disabilities to maintain competitive employment.

“Language endorsing the antiquated practice of paying the blind and other workers with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage, which is based on the fallacious premise that disabled workers cannot be productive and do the same work as their non-disabled peers, has no place in legislation designed to increase competitive work opportunities for workers with disabilities,” said Dr. Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, in a news release.

TASH has also called on Congress to vote against the proposal, as has the National Down Syndrome Society.

DisAbility Rights Washington, is part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.

2 responses to “Subminimum wage proposal sparks controversy

  1. This is good news to me. The National Councl on Disabilities has recommended to eliminate subminimum wage their real agenda is to shut down sheltered workshops. I believe sheltered workshops do take advantage of people but there are other ways to shut them down while potentialy hurting others. This law should also include a wage floor of $2.00-$3.00 per hour which will help ensure people are not being taken advantage of. The law should also include requirements for the Department of Labor to review their subminimum wage certification process to make it less cumbersome on companies employing people with disabilities, an online database system would help do that.

  2. This proposal strikes me as an important, incremental step forward. We have to do something to reduce the number of people with disabilities who are working at a subminimum wage. While it may not be an ideal approach, it represent progress on a critical issue.

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