It’s About TIME: Ending Subminimum Wages for Workers with Disabilities

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This year, the United States is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While the Act signifies improved conditions for persons with disabilities in the United States, we still have so much to do to achieve equality and justice. In fact, it is still legal in the United States for persons with severe disabilities to be paid significantly lower than the minimum wage for their work efforts. The Transitioning to Integrated and Meaningful Employment (TIME) Act, bipartisan legislation that would phase out this antiquated allowance, was introduced to Congress on January 7th. Sadly, the website GovTrack.Us estimates that the bill has only a 3 percent chance of being enacted, seemingly because it is a low priority. This bill is important, and with greater recognition and pressure from the public, perhaps it would have a greater chance of passing.

The TIME Act addresses Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938, which allows the Secretary of Labor to grant special wage certificates to companies and organizations that employ persons with disabilities. These certificates allow employers to pay lower wages to employees with disabilities by setting a benchmark of productivity based on workers without disabilities (set through processes such as timed studies) and then testing how an individual with a disability measures up to that standard. The percentage of work they do compared to the standard is the percentage of the wage that they are paid.

On the outside, the prospect of “equal pay for equal work” seems fair, as an employer is seemingly basing wage on productivity. However, there are a number of problems with this assumption:

1. The standards set by companies are unrealistic and unfair. The TIME Act asserts that the productivity benchmarks are difficult for even workers without disabilities to meet. That in itself is unfair and sets workers with disabilities up to make substandard wages. However, workers without disabilities receive a set wage that does not dip below the minimum. Their individual performance is not rated by their productivity, and does not affect their wages despite the fact that productivity varies between workers based on their individual capabilities and motivation to work. We’ve all met an office slacker, and wondered why they get paid the same amount for doing so little work. In this case, a slacking worker may make a set wage while a worker with a disability who is poorly matched to a task will make far less.

2. Matching jobs to abilities/limitations is ignored. In a Forbes article discussing Section 14(c), a blind woman who worked for Goodwill was employed on a task with a standard that included hanging 100 articles of clothing meeting specific requirements (separating by gender and size and facing specific directions) in 32 minutes without an error. The woman was paid $3.99 an hour based on her performance. Assigning a blind person to a task that is so visually demanding and expecting them to perform at the same level as a person who has no ocular impairment is setting that worker up for failure, as well as a poor business decision. Businesses run by matching worker abilities to jobs: you wouldn’t hire a writer to work as an accountant. By the same standard, businesses should not place workers with specific limitations on tasks that are directly affected by those limitations.

3. The role of training is ignored, and the capabilities of people with disabilities are being seriously undervalued. Proper worker training can make or break their success. FLSA was written in 1938, a time when people with disabilities faced even more discrimination and prejudice. The TIME Act recognizes that people with disabilities in 1938 had far fewer opportunities and faced far greater prejudice. Today, it is recognized that workers with disabilities can be just as or even more productive than “able” workers. Habitat International Inc., a Tennessee-based company that produces indoor and outdoor rugs, hires a workforce of which 75 percent of the workers are disabled, including severe disabilities. The CEO, David Morris, asserts many statistics that back his claim that workers with disabilities are beneficial to business. His workers are extremely loyal, contributing to low truancy and turnover; the company runs with only two managers to oversee the entire plant due to the effectiveness and independence of the workers; and it has experienced zero back orders, almost no product defects, and no worker accidents among workers with disabilities. According to the company website, employees require a bit more training in the beginning, as well as jobs matching their limitations, but they out-produce their competition two-to-one. By tailoring training and recognizing the talents and differences of people with disabilities, Habitat International, Inc. has actually improved its business and culture.

4. These companies are creating an employment trap for workers who typically face greater poverty. Persons with disabilities are part of a marginalized class that faces greater poverty and homelessness. By exploiting these workers for lower wages, companies such as Goodwill create a lower-paid workforce while their top executives continue to make six figures including over half a million dollars for the President and CEO of Goodwill Industries. Because workers are poorly matched and expected to perform subpar work based on ridiculous benchmarks, they have less potential to be recognized as good and productive workers, their advancement opportunities are limited, and they are trapped at poverty wage levels.

As much as I want the TIME Act to phase out this wage discrimination, some opponents have brought up potentially valid opposition. For example, a father of a severely disabled woman argued that her capacity to work is truly limited, but that she takes pride in bringing home even a small paycheck every few weeks. If these wage certificates are phased out, she will no longer have the opportunity to participate in this employment because the severity of her disability, even with proper training, limits her ability to be productive enough to compete. The argument here is that these opportunities provide satisfaction for people with severe disabilities that bar them from participating fully in the workforce, and that satisfaction should be valued. However, is that satisfaction considered more important than the fair treatment of hundreds of thousands of workers who could be fully productive with the right training, and who need their jobs for meeting living expenses, as opposed to just providing a sense of pride?

I will continue to support the TIME Act despite this opposition, although I am dismayed that the act’s low priority in Congress will probably keep it from being passed. The fair treatment of workers with disabilities is the greatest priority in this situation, and FLSA 14(c) is based on outdated perceptions of disability. It has been proven that workers with even severe disabilities can produce and out-produce if they are given proper training and placed in positions that work with their skills and limitations. It’s time to extend a fair wage to workers with disabilities.

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