In 2009 in a “bunkhouse” in Iowa, workers with disabilities earned forty-one cents an hour alongside abled workers earning between nine and twelve dollars an hour. The facility where the disabled employees were forced to sleep was unheated and infested with cockroaches. Similar conditions are the realities for the twenty–eight percent of Americans with disabilities age 18 to 64 that live in poverty.
Shouldn’t laws exist to protect this vulnerable population from such dehumanizing conditions? The irony is, it is the law that creates the conditions in the first place. Provision 14c of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 licenses “sheltered workshop” programs run by the state or non-profits. The programs, intended to only be for short-term training, are exempt from the federal minimum wage laws. They are said to be beneficial by increasing the amount of employment opportunities available to the disabled.
The evidence suggests otherwise. The workshops are detrimental to disabled workers’ health and livelihood. They isolate workers from society and leave them trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty. Furthermore, the General Accountability Office found only five percent of workers in such programs left them to take regular jobs, indicting they are not fulfilling their purpose as temporary training facilities. It is clear the only gains associated with the 14c program are gains to employers, which profit from paying disabled workers a fraction of the salaries paid to able-bodied counterparts for the same work.
Having noticed this, the state of Vermont eliminated all of its 14c programs in 2003. It refocused spending on job coaching services allowing disabled workers to have success in regular jobs. Vermont’s current employment rate for people with disabilities is twenty percent higher than the national rate.
The 14c policy is outdated and reflective of the old paradigm associated with the institutional movement: that people with disabilities are not capable of competitive employment and participation in society. Today, society operates from a “community citizenship and the inclusion” viewpoint, that believes disabled workers are competent to engage in meaningful work and life activities. Many policies have come to reflect this shift, with the exception of the exemption.
If politicians are arguing the $7.25 minimum wage is too low, it is irrefutable that wages earned by Americans with disabilities are insufficient. To prevent accusations of discrimination, Congress must include a discussion on gradually phasing out the exemption when it debates raising the current minimum wage. Evidence in Vermont and Iowa strongly suggest the current policy fails to meet its intended goal and that funds could be spent in more productive ways. Congress cannot afford to waste resources that shape American’s livelihoods on ineffective policies.