Imagine going to work every day and getting just 22 cents an hour for your labor. That’s a reality for some workers in the United States thanks to a system of subminimum wage laws and other loopholes in laws such as the Special Wage Certificate Program (1938), which specifically allows employers to underpay disabled employees.
Advocates have been fighting for years on this issue, arguing that employees in special classes such as disabled people and waitstaff (subject to a “wait wage” far lower than the federal minimum wage) should receive equal treatment.
Their lobbying may be paying off with yet another attempt in Congress to ban the exploitation of low-wage labor in the United States, as Republican Congressman Greg Harper introduced a bill in February to abolish the Special Wage Certificate Program (subminimum wages for disabled workers have come up in Congress in 2010, 2011, 2012 and before — it’s not new, in other words). It’s in the news this week thanks to a study showing that Goodwill employees with impairments can earn as little as 22 cents an hour compared to the International CEO’s annual salary of $729,000 — regional CEOs earn as much as $500,000 for their work.
To understand subminimum wage laws and what’s going on with Goodwill, it helps to backtrack a little and discuss the sheltered workshop model of employment for disabled people. Historically, disabled people were often deemed unfit to work and lead active lives in their communities. At the turn of the 20th century, advocates began fighting for job training for disabled people, intending to create a system where people could acquire real job skills they could use to develop independence.
That evolved into the now heavily-criticized sheltered workshop model, where instead of acquiring useful job skills, disabled people perform simple, repetitive tasks like parts assembly, organizing clothes at facilities like Goodwill, and simple furniture repairs. In some regions, they receive a full wage for their work, often though a grant, in a program known as supported employment. People in supported employment programs receive part of their wage from their employers, and part through the program, which allows a company to receive unskilled labor at a low cost.
In other cases, they’re paid subminimum wage under special labor laws that allow for reductions in wage in reflection of the belief that disabled people can’t perform the same work nondisabled people are capable of. The argument is that employers should be allowed to calibrate their wages on the basis of the amount of work a hypothetical nondisabled person could do, adjusting downward to reflect the lower skills of a disabled worker. Notably, such productivity-based pay does not extend to nondisabled workers. Consequently, disabled people can receive pennies on the dollar when compared with nondisabled people, and this blatant discrimination is all totally legal.
This system has been sharply criticized by numerous disability rights organizations on the grounds that it enforces poverty, traps disabled people in low-wage jobs and is deeply dehumanising. Given the low employment rate for disabled people, employers justify it with the argument that without sheltered workshop and subminimum wage programs, they wouldn’t be able to hire disabled workers, because they’d be too expensive to take on. They view employment as a form of charity, suggesting it’s “fulfilling” to disabled workers, rather than a legitimate job, as it is for nondisabled people. That brings us to Goodwill, an organization that supposedly supports disabled people, yet hypocritically radically underpays them while its executives make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, a strange situation for a supposed charity.
While Goodwill has been criticized for its practices for years, a high-profile report released by NBC may be the spur needed for actual reform not just to the charity’s practices, but also to subminimum wage laws in general. This is a critically needed reform, because sheltered workshop models are ripe for abuse, as seen for example in the Henry’s Turkey Service case, where intellectually disabled workers were not just paid subminimum wage, but also kept in inhuman conditions and effectively treated like slave labor.
Until disabled people are valued as full human beings and legitimate employees, such abuses are going to continue, and those abuses are also going to filter into the public consciousness and social attitudes about disabled people.
It’s hard to achieve independence when you’re making 22 cents an hour. Sign the petition to support a fair wage for all Goodwill employees.
Image credit: TownePost Network