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Your View: It’s time to stop exploiting people with disabilities

February 08, 2021 | Online article

For more than 80 years, the ironically titled Fair Labor Standards Act has institutionalized discrimination against people with disabilities in the workforce. The act endorses the practice of exploitation by paying people with disabilities substandard compensation, well below the minimum wage.

This practice must end now. People with developmental disabilities should be paid the same as others. They should be afforded the dignity and respect established by law more than 30 years ago through the Americans with Disabilities Act.

President Joe Biden has backed legislation raising the federal minimum wage and eliminating sub-minimum wages for people with disabilities. While encouraging for families and advocates, it still needs to be implemented.

Leadership from the president on down to the local level is needed. If policies on the federal level fail to be implemented, Pennsylvania lawmakers should take direct action to address this injustice.

Of particular concern is Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which gives employers an out clause — allowing the payment of a substandard minimum wage to people with developmental disabilities. Employers can apply for the waiver when employing individuals with a disability or when contracting with workforce development entities who find employment for the disabled.

This legalized discrimination has been perpetuated through the pre-civil rights era rationalization that employing people with disabilities is a charitable gesture that needed to be incentivized. Their wages would be adjusted accordingly.

The “adjustment” also takes into consideration work product quality, labor efficiency and productivity. Advocates, families and professionals who work with persons with disabilities have fought this for decades.

It is nothing more than a license to exploit people with disabilities with unacceptable wages treating them as substandard.

The law itself guides employers, noting that the mere fact that a worker may have a disability is not in and of itself sufficient to warrant the payment of a sub-minimum wage under existing law. Yet, the actual application of this waiver often ignores individual ability, creating a system ripe for abuse and a substandard worker class.

This often results in many workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities segregated to work in “sheltered” workshops. In these establishments, workers with disabilities are isolated from workers without disabilities and paid sub-minimum wages.

The annual report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights last year cited tens of thousands of people with disabilities earning an average wage of $3.34 an hour for tasks such as bagging newspapers, shredding papers by hand or wrapping silverware in napkins.

Wages are calculated by regularly timing how long it takes each worker to complete a task and comparing that productivity to an experienced worker without disabilities.

These sheltered workplaces not only pay a substandard wage but further isolate workers with disabilities from their communities by not encouraging them to transition to more community-based work settings.

It is for these reasons that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights called for an end to sub-minimum wage. The document called the policy “inconsistent with the civil rights protections to which people with disabilities are entitled.”

Only six states — Alaska, Maryland, New Hampshire, Texas, Oregon and Nevada — have ended or are in the process of phasing out sub-minimum wage for people with disabilities.

Before the pandemic hit the disabled community, the U.S. unemployment rate for people with disabilities already was approximately 7.3% in 2019 . That’s almost double the national unemployment rate of 3.7%. Now it is even worse.

This should not be misconstrued as an indictment of the intent or engagement of Pennsylvania’s corporate citizens — they have generously embraced the disabled community. Local businesses consistently partner with organizations on workforce development, training and employment.

Employment opportunities provided to the disabled play a critical part in the quality of their lives. In addition to economic support, individuals develop a sense of purpose and direction that is supported by the community setting and camaraderie provided through involvement in the workforce.

We recognize this would not be possible without the support of good corporate citizens.

Government should not, however, sanction discrimination.

The substandard wage class created by legal loopholes must end now — particularly for those among us who face the greatest challenges.

Robert Stack is founder and CEO of Community Options Inc., which provides housing and employment support for people with disabilities across 10 states. It maintains 16 offices throughout Pennsylvania.

Your View: It’s time to stop exploiting people with disabilities – The Morning Call
Your View: It’s time to stop exploiting people with disabilities – The Morning Call