American Nightmare: How workers with disabilities are denied economic prosperity
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“Workers paid only a few dollars per hour.” “Disabled workers exploited for profit.” “Employers pay next to nothing for manual labor.” If you read these headlines at the top of your newspaper, would you think you were reading about sweatshops in some distant developing country? If someone were to tell you that every day hundreds of thousands of workers with disabilities are paid less, typically far less, than the minimum wage in cities like Boston, Los Angeles, Cleveland, or Salt Lake City, would you believe them? Would the thought ever cross your mind that this could happen right here in the United States?

The stark reality is that everything you just read is true. People with disabilities are paid subminimum wages and it’s completely legal for companies to do so.

The Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1938, was a landmark law enacted with the specific intention of protecting the rights of American workers. It established such modern norms as a 40-hour workweek, overtime pay, restrictions against child labor, and the federal minimum wage. However, it also introduced an exception to that minimum wage with the inclusion of Section 14(c), which allows employers to obtain a special wage certificate granting the permission to pay people with disabilities at a rate “lower than the minimum wage.” There it is in black and white, discrimination codified into United States law.

According to the Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division, 321,131 Americans with disabilities are currently employed under 14(c) certificates. That is more than 300,000 people who are legally able to be paid less than the minimum wage by employers like major restaurant and hotel chains, consignment stores and school districts. Even more disturbing is that the vast majority of these organizations are nonprofits, which receive set aside government contracts for hiring workers with disabilities while paying those same workers subminimum wages. This is perhaps the most insidious and cruel form of “double-dipping.”

Many argue that giving disabled Americans something to do, even if it means paying us next to nothing, is better than us doing nothing. They will argue that earning a paycheck, even if a week’s check amounts to just a few dollars, provides a sense of dignity for disabled Americans. They argue that providing some place for disabled Americans to go, even if it is a workshop where we perform repetitive and mind-numbing labor, is better than sitting at home. They argue that all of these things foster feelings of pride and independence in disabled Americans. This misguided notion of charity is actually pity, and is insulting to disabled workers, because it presumes we do not know and can’t understand the value of money. I’m not convinced that anyone can feel proud and independent when their paycheck for a week of work is not enough to afford a value meal at a fast food restaurant. Are you?

To put it bluntly, Americans with disabilities do not want your pity. We want your respect. We want you to respect us enough to extend the opportunity to work in a meaningful job, to work side-by-side with you toward a common goal, and most importantly to earn a living wage so that we can be independent.

The American Dream is generally understood as the opportunity for anyone, regardless of background, to achieve success and prosperity through hard work and determination. Section 14(c) creates a second class of citizens, based solely on disability, that are unable to experience the benefits of that dream. Americans with disabilities are determined, we are willing, and we are most definitely able to work hard, but regardless of how hard we work, success and prosperity will always be well out of reach as long as Section 14(c) is on the books. Our nation’s commitment to end discrimination against people with disabilities must include ending the payment of subminimum wages, otherwise it is nothing more than a hollow platitude.

Mark Riccobono is President of the National Federation of the Blind.