Subminimum wage must end

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Minimum wage has become a more common conversation around dinner tables. From the State of the Union address to the president’s recent executive order concerning federal workers, folks are paying attention to pay stubs.

Regardless of where one falls on the issue, a topic that is outrageously absent from this discussion is the legalized payment of subminimum wages to disabled workers. Let me repeat that. The federal government allows companies to pay disabled employees below minimum wage, leaving some making as little as 3 cents per hour.

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How can this confused moral perspective continue? The answer is a 1938 labor law allowing employers to receive special wage certificates. Some of these companies would shock you. Like Goodwill Industries — a company whose mission, in part, claims “… to enhance the dignity and quality of life of individuals and families.” Even so, some Goodwill employees earn pennies on the hour while the company spends millions of dollars per year on executive compensation. Those who utilize the subminimum wage generally enjoy nonprofit, tax-free status, and have guaranteed access to government contracts.

This model may have provided opportunities to disabled workers in 1938. But in 2014, it is simply not the most appropriate strategy for creating real training and employment scenarios.

Plus, this waiver program leaves hundreds of thousands of individuals perpetually dependent on social programs. By authorizing subminimum wages, the federal government is in essence forcing the disabled to rely on public benefits.

This is why I authored the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act, a bill to provide fair and moral pay to workers with disabilities in sheltered, segregated workshops.

This issue is not about increasing the minimum wage. It is about reversing years of discrimination and backward thinking about the capacity of workers with disabilities.

As a parent of a child with a disability, I have come to understand that techniques evolve every day that make the seemingly impossible, possible. My wife, Sidney, and I have observed our son Livingston, who has Fragile X syndrome, overcoming challenges that we never thought he would. We have witnessed the perseverance and dedication he has displayed in going after his dreams. We have full faith in his potential to be a productive member of society and contribute greatly to improving his community.

Although many feel that there are those who are too severely disabled to work in a competitive integrated work environment, strategies are being developed every day to make it possible for individuals just like Livingston to obtain and maintain gainful employment. But if our government continues to support a model that believes it is impossible, we will continue to impede the development of these groundbreaking strategies.

The recognition of the employment capacity of this disenfranchised population of people with disabilities is a necessary evolution of our society. Our understanding of the employability of those with disabilities continues to grow. The types of jobs and skills to perform these tasks expand every day. Even more, assistive technologies empowering workers with disabilities to be productive are constantly being developed. In order to provide real opportunities for every individual to reach their full potential, the tools and tactics for employment must perpetually move forward.

Some may still feel that it is not the right time to change this employment model. My view is that this antiquated system has not significantly changed since 1938, pushing the unemployment rate for people with disabilities above 75 percent. If we do not work to modernize this system now, then when should we do it?

In order to ensure that we become the best America, we must ensure the full participation of every citizen. This includes our friends and neighbors with disabilities. If we are going to turn things around, we must create opportunities for individuals to become beneficial contributing members of our society, not create generation after generation of public beneficiaries.

I have weighed this issue from a variety of perspectives, reviewing data about the employment of people with disabilities and holding meetings with many stakeholders and employment professionals. I am convinced that although some may feel that this issue is complicated, it is simply the right thing to do.

Our country must shift the paradigm of low expectations to one of full participation. Meaningful work deserves fair pay. We must invest in the full participation of every citizen, including Americans with disabilities. 

Harper has represented Mississippi’s 3rd Congressional District since 2009. He sits on the Energy and Commerce; the Ethics; and the House Administration committees.

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