It's time to ensure workplace protections for people with disabilities
© Getty Images

This week marks the 80th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Regardless of how you may feel about a federal minimum wage law, you probably think it applies to all American workers. However, employees with disabilities can be exempt from the federal minimum wage. Tens of thousands are legally paid a subminimum wage solely because they have a disability. This plainly discriminatory practice has allowed instances of exploitation of workers with disabilities.

This loophole is section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. This section of the law assumes that an individual’s productivity is impaired due to their disability and allows an employer to obtain a 14(c) certificate from the Department of Labor. Once granted, these employers become exempt from federal minimum wage requirements, enabling them to vastly underpay 160,000 workers with disabilities living in the United States. For instance, Goodwill used the certificates to pay some workers as little as 22 cents an hour -- even as the non-profit's executives earned generous six-figure salaries.

ADVERTISEMENT

A recent example of this abuse was discovered in April of this year. The Department of Labor alleged that Illinois-based Rock River Valley Self Help Enterprises Inc. had exploited 250 workers with disabilities. The non-profit used these workers as low-cost factory labor and sometimes gave them gift cards instead of paychecks. Many employers segregate their 14(c) employees into so-called sheltered workshops where they are isolated from their able-bodied peers and forced to perform low-skill work that offers little preparation for a more fruitful career.

Congress can resolve this problem and outlaw the last legal form of workplace discrimination. The bipartisan Transitioning to Integrated and Meaningful Employment (TIME) Act would gradually eliminate that loophole. The TIME Act would require the Department of Labor to immediately stop issuing new certificates. Existing certificates would expire after six years. This bill would not only help the remaining 160,000 Americans with disabilities currently paid subminimum wages, but recognizes that they are whole human beings deserving of equal application of U.S. laws. This effort deserves support from every lawmaker.

The chief opponents of this reform -- namely the remaining employers who hold 14(c) certificates in order to underpay their workers and the allies they have made in the Congress by convincing them that some people are so severely disabled that they should be exempted to equal application of the law -- argue that eliminating the program will result in layoffs.

That same argument was made in the past about other minority groups and still does not hold water. In fact, the national trend shows that more and more employers who previously paid subminimum wages have successfully transitioned their employment model so that they no longer depend on these 14(c) certificates in order to hire people with disabilities. These employers now pay all workers fairly -- and both employers and employees report being better off as a result.

For example, Melwood, one of the largest employers of people with disabilities on the East Coast, relinquished its certificate on Feb. 14, 2016. Its decision translated into a substantial pay raise for around 400 of the over 900 employees with disabilities employed by Melwood at the time. This increased the organization’s annual payroll by approximately $700,000. Melwood voluntarily analyzed the costs and positioned the organization for this major change because 14(c) stands in stark contrast to the principles of general civil rights and runs counter to Melwood’s vision of a world where people with differing disabilities are fully included. Melwood went on to lead the fight to enact legislation in Maryland to eliminate the sub-minimum wage, which was successful in May 2016, making Maryland one of three states to outlaw the sub-minimum wage. Vermont and Alaska are the others.

Another example worth noting is Morningside, a non-profit based in Olympia, Wash., that ended its sub-minimum-wage policy in 2015. Morningside no longer has to devote resources to complying with 14(c), which was a complicated, time-consuming process. More importantly, Morningside reports a newfound sense of pride among its workers, many of whom are now employed in integrated settings working side by side with non-disabled co-workers and earning a fair wage.

Likewise, the non-profit Exceptional Persons Inc., in Waterloo, Iowa, transitioned away from sub-minimum-wages in 2013. The organization found that the administrative costs of maintaining the 14(c) certificate actually outweighed the cost of raising workers' pay. In other words, Exceptional Persons saved money by paying workers fairly.

American workers with disabilities deserve the same workplace protections that other citizens have. It's time to end this 1930’s era policy and ensure that all workers, regardless of their disability enjoy equal rights and opportunities.

Harper represents Mississippi’s 3rd District.