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Why South Carolina should end wage discrimination against those with disabilities

April 17, 2021 |

A joint resolution filed by State Sen. Katrina Shealy last month would undo more than 80 years of wage discrimination against workers with disabilities in South Carolina. It deserves the full support of the entire legislature.

If passed, the resolution would prohibit use of Section 14(c) of the ironically titled “Fair Labor Standards Act.” This provision codified wage discrimination against people with disabilities under federal law in 1938 by allowing companies to apply for an exemption to pay workers with disabilities less than minimum wage. While adjustments have been made to this law since its enactment, they have only lowered the standards further, lessening wages allowed for the disabled.

The outdated reasoning behind this inequity is that employing people with disabilities is a charitable gesture, and that the wage should be adjusted for work product quality, as well as labor efficiency and productivity.

The fact that a worker may have a disability is by itself not sufficient to warrant payment of a sub-minimum wage under existing law. But the manner in which this policy is applied results in substandard wages for people with disabilities and a substandard class of employees. Most people working under Section 14 (c) are placed in sheltered workshops separate from workers without disabilities, and are not encouraged or prepared to achieve competitive and integrated employment.

Advocates and families have challenged this for decades. A blanket pass for employers to treat people with disabilities as a substandard class of employee is nothing less than sanctioned institutional discrimination.

That is why the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights called for an end to sub-minimum wage in its September, 2020 report, noting this policy is “inconsistent with the civil rights protections to which people with disabilities are entitled.” But only six states have ended or are in the process of phasing out sub-minimum wages for people with disabilities – New Hampshire, Maryland, Alaska, Texas, Oregon, and Nevada.

In South Carolina, at least 1,200 state residents make below the federal minimum wage of $7.25, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

This should not be viewed as an indictment of South Carolina companies that have generously embraced the disabled community. They have partnered with many organizations on workforce development, training, and employment. We in the disability community have welcomed their support and involvement and sincerely recognize their contributions.

Many people with cognitive and intellectual disabilities lead productive and fulfilling lives, and employment impacts the quality of their lives. In addition to earning wages, individuals develop a sense of purpose, camaraderie, community and direction through involvement in the workforce. That would not be possible without the support of good corporate citizens.

Robert Stack, President & CEO
Robert Stack, President & CEO

Nevertheless, the institutionalized discrimination of any community cannot continue. The Biden administration is attempting to end wage discrimination against people with disabilities, but we can’t rely on an uncertain federal outcome to end injustice.

South Carolina should take matters into its own hands and we applaud Shealy for recognizing that. We urge all South Carolina lawmakers to end this shameful discrimination.

Robert Stack is president and CEO of Community Options, a nonprofit organization that supports people with disabilities in Greenville