Subminimum wages bill heading back to the Senate floor

Reinvigorating an issue that sharply divided disability advocates two years ago, a key Senate committee voted 18-3 on July 31 in favor of a bill that includes a provision, Section 511, that establishes new requirements for state agencies and employers seeking to provide jobs to people with disabilities at salaries less than the minimum wage.

Dollar on Scale
Sub-minimum wage continues?

Under section 14(c) the Fair Labor Standards Act, enacted in 1938, employers can apply to the Department of Labor for a Special Minimum Wage Certificate, which allows them to pay certain employees with disabilities subminimum wages. Although these certificates were meant to create temporary job opportunities to individuals whom otherwise may not be employed, more than 95 percent of people in these positions never transition into competitive employment.

More than 400,000 people with disabilities nationwide work in these positions, often called “sheltered workshops” by critics.

The proposed legislation creates, for the first time, a series of requirements these employers must follow before accepting people with disabilities into their programs.

Specifically, these employers must ensure that these individuals have received pre-employment transition services and continue to receive job training services to help them move to integrated employment. Upon entering sheltered workshops programs, the employees must then be reevaluated every six months.

The legislation, a part of the reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act, a 1998 federal job training bill, also creates certain age-related requirements, to further prevent the current cycle of students with disabilities being ushered from high school into a lifetime of subminimum wage employment.

Now that the bill has passed the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee,  it will move forward to the full Senate for a vote.

The National Disability Rights Network, along with the Arc, Easter Seals, the National Council on Independent Living, the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities, have come out in support of the bill.

“What this does is create a requirement that vocational rehabilitation providers make an effort to achieve an employment outcome rather than just shrug their shoulders and place people in sheltered workshops. It’s a step in the right direction,” Patrick Wojahn, a public policy analyst at the National Disability Rights Network, told Disability Scoop.

Contrarily, the National Federation of the Blind, which organized protests against the bill two years ago, argues the bill perpetuates the “outdated belief that disabled people can’t really work.” The National Down Syndrome Society also opposes it.

“This provision purports to introduce protections to limit the number of youth with disabilities who are placed in subminimum wage employment, but will have the unintended effect of trapping people with disabilities in dead-end, segregated, subminimum-wage jobs with the blessing of the rehabilitation system.,” NFB President Dr. Marc Maurer said in a news release. “We urge that this section be removed in its entirety.”