People With Disabilities Get Left Behind by Obama’s Call For a Higher Minimum Wage

Written by Sy Mukherjee

58-year-old Chester Finn is one of the approximately 57 million Americans with a physical or developmental disability. A visually impaired man, Finn spent years working in a so-called “sheltered workshop” — more commonly known today as a “work center,” or a facility that employs large numbers of workers with disabilities — in western New York. He and his fellow workers did a variety of standard factory work, including putting sponges into individual plastic wrappers and sealing them shut, stuffing envelopes, and working in the cafeteria.

But unlike other workers, Finn and the other disabled employees got paid less — sometimes significantly less — than $300 per month.

“I felt that we did hard work,” Finn told ThinkProgress in an interview. “We had to do most things that you do — food servicing, we had to prepare stuff for the individuals. We had to clean up, and we also had to do the dishes and things like that. I felt that they should have been paying us more.”

Even assuming a 20-hour work week, Finn’s pay came out to less than $4 per hour. The federal minimum wage hasn’t been that low (in terms of current dollars) since 1990. But Finn’s wages aren’t against the law.

That’s because a little-known provision called Section 14(c) of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act allows companies that employ workers with disabilities to pay them subminimum wages under a special wage certificate. With income inequality and a national minimum wage hike at the center of President Barack Obama’s 2014 agenda, disability advocates say a change is long overdue.

The National Council on Disability (NCD), an independent federal agency tasked with advising the government on issues that affect Americans with disabilities, recently sent a letter to President Obama and Labor Secretary Tom Perez urging the White House to expand the scope of its forthcoming Executive Order raising new federal contractors’ minimum wages to $10.10 per hour. “We were disheartened to learn… that the Administration does not have the intention of crafting the planned Executive Order in such a way as to apply the raised minimum wage to people with disabilities who are currently employed by federal contractors who pay them subminimum wages,” read NCD’s letter.

With huge advancements in both how Americans with disabilities are perceived and the accommodations available to them, why has progress on wage equality been so hard to come by?

“Because the Executive Order will not raise the wages of these individuals outright, as a result, the Executive Order will only have a negligible, trickle-down effect on employees with disabilities employed by contractors who pay them subminimum wages, as wages paid under this program will simply be calculated in relation to the new minimum wage. This may mean that a worker receiving pennies an hour today may receive a dime as a result of the Executive Order. Surely we can do better than this.”

According to NCD, Americans with disabilities are about three times as likely to live in poverty than non-disabled Americans, and less than one in five disabled people participate in the workforce. That’s compared to over 68 percent labor force participation among people without disabilities. Other organizations such as the Autistic Self Advocacy Network have argued that the Obama administration has the authority to extend the minimum wage Executive Order to workers employed under a 14(c) certificate.

The Fair Labor Standards Act’s 14(c) exemption wasn’t originally meant to be discriminatory, according to advocates. Rather, it was a patrician approach to integrating the disabled into society that reflected the times. “That was a very custodial way of looking at, ‘How could we help include workers with disabilities into the work force?’” explained NCD Co-Vice Chair Lynnae Ruttledge in a phone interview.

But with huge advancements in both how Americans with disabilities are perceived and the accommodations available to them, why has progress on wage equality been so hard to come by? “Oh, because disability is big business,” said Ruttledge. “The only reason that you can’t get traction with this is because there are large publicly funded nonprofit organizations that make an incredible amount of money getting federal contracts and tax exemptions [and then] being able to use the provisions under 14(c) so that some of their workers will be paid less than minimum wage.”

One such organization is the nonprofit Goodwill Industries. The company proudly proclaims that 7,300 of its 105,000 nationwide employees have disabilities. However, “[i]n 38 states, spanning from Hawaii to Florida, a majority of Goodwill organizations pay workers with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage, while simultaneously spending tens of millions of dollars in executive compensation and travel-related expenses,” according to a 2013 investigation. Goodwill executive compensation ranged anywhere from $300,000 to over $1 million even as it paid its disabled workers subminimum wages under 14(c) exemptions.

There are those who think that workers with disabilities should be paid the lower wages. Peter Schiff, chief executive of money management firm Euro Pacific Capital and former Ron Paul adviser, came under fire for a recent Daily Show interview where he argued that “mentally retarded” and otherwise disabled employees deserve minimal compensation. “Others may disagree, but I believe a job for such a person at $2 per hour is better than no job at all,” wrote Schiff in a followup column defending his comments.

“The only reason that people are in that situation is because no one ever gave them a chance to do anything else.”

Advocates and workers with disabilities say the issue boils down to one of human dignity. “[I was talking to a friend] about subminimum wage, and he was talking about a couple of people that he knew in a shelter workshop, and how important it was to keep those people there,” said Finn, who now works for the New York state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPDD). “And I was explaining to him, well, they know nothing else! The only reason that people are in that situation is because no one ever gave them a chance to do anything else.”

“I’ve been a state employee, I’ve been a federal employee, and I can tell you that if you were paying people just based on productivity, you could easily go into any work place and say, ‘at least 10 percent of the people here are not producing at the same level that their coworkers are.’ And I think that it is a disingenuous way at looking at whether or not someone is contributing to the workplace and contributing to the community,” said Ruttledge.

This post was originally published in ThinkProgress

Photo Credit: Thinkstock


Chris P.
Chris P4 years ago

This is sad and bad. Here in my country I'm supporting an charity who helps these disabled people in fund raising once a year. This year you get in return a hand painted coffee table.

Lynn C.
Lynn C4 years ago


Sara bostic
Sara B4 years ago

I believe that when a person is hired to do a job and does that job well, they should be compensated well. That compensation should be enough to allow them to live in comfort and with dignity. This means that they can afford a place to live that is clean and warm, food that is nutritious, transportation to and from work, etc.
It shouldn't matter if you are with or without disabilities. If you are hired to do a job and you do it well, you deserve the same compensation.

Rhonda Bird
Rhonda B4 years ago

Thank you.

Joie Jameson Lech

Disabled ones do not get what they need. They have to fight for it all. This is not right. I care not what the laws say. I just know what I have lived fighting the system to get what my daughter's needed.
Being in the profession as I am, & having lived the lost of my daughter's, I do the Dance
We must jointly raise the consciousness. I know no other way. Joie' Jameson, R.N./Tucson, AZ.

Leah h.
Leah H4 years ago

Angela R. - People with disabilities do not get "good benefits". In our state Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is less than $700 a month and Medicaid, which some doctors and no dentists in the state will not accept. This amount will not even pay for an efficiency apartment. Paying the disabled less is a boon to employers, not the disabled.

Angela Ray
Angela Ray4 years ago

Kinda' common sense! Disabled people are getting good benefits as it is. If their wages are increased, their benefits are diminished. So they have to make the choice.

sarah jaffe
sarah jaffe4 years ago

I do think something needs to be changed, there needs to be a minimum income for every person for things to be truly fair. I mean, rationally, it kind of makes sense to say "well, since they work slower, need more help, or whatever, we'll simply pay them for piecework".. you can justify it saying it keeps them busy, gives them a place to be and a sense of belonging, gives them an income, and you assume they are still getting assistance from the government or a disability plan. But where it doesn't make sense to me is that, say they are getting paid piecework, like 5 cents for every batch of items packaged, etc... whereas able-bodied people in that same job would expect an hourly wage and could slack off as much as they wanted without getting fired. I've worked alongside so many non-disabled people who were definitely lacking in the work ethic department, who would stand around and chat while other people being paid exactly the same wages end up taking out the trash and doing all the extra cleaning. You could apply the problem conversely and argue that able-bodied people shouldn't be entitled to hourly wages, they should be paid piecework, and then you'd hear a REAL big fuss.

This is definitely a problem of inequality and a guaranteed minimum income for all people, not just a minimum wage for those who manage to land one of the limited amount of shitty jobs out there, would be the solution. The sad part is how affordable it is, but the spoiled asshats in this world don't w

Ron C.
Ron C4 years ago

The idea of a guaranteed living income for everyone has been kicking around for awhile....I dont know about making it universal...but I do know that anyone who is really disabled and cannot work should receive a guaranteed minimum income that they can live on comfortably...but the term disabled needs to be carefully defined and not be as broad as it is today if applying a guaranteed minimum income...and perhaps there should be a total disability and partial disability designation whereas the partially disabled must take responsibility for some of their income.
The problem is that the higher the wage for disabled people who cannot be fully productive the fewer jobs that will be available to them..simple ecomonics.
There seems to be some confusion about the terms disabled and disabled can be physically/mentally disabled and not be a disabled worker..that is your physical/mental disability does not interfere with your job performance.....I think the lower wage is supposed to apply to disabled workers and not to the disabled in general.

Charles Brady
Charles Brady4 years ago

@ Vivianne M. - that 47% you refer to includes people on Social Security (which they have paid into all their lives). It also includes the disabled veterans. They gave their all for their country, but you see them as vampires? Sad.