The Obama administration announced on Wednesday that it will expand the scope of its forthcoming Executive Order raising new federal contractors’ minimum wages to $10.10 per hour to include workers with disabilities — a major shift that could substantially boost salaries for an estimated 50,000 Americans with disabilities who can legally be paid less than the federal minimum wage under current law.
Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 allows companies that employ workers with disabilities to pay them subminimum wages under a special wage certificate. Disability advocates have long pushed for a repeal of that provision, arguing that it reflects an outdated and patrician view of what workers with disabilities are capable of, how they are perceived, and the accommodations now available to them.
Originally, the White House seemed poised to leave Americans with disabilities out of its Executive Order — a move that was sharply criticized by the National Council on Disability (NCD), an independent federal agency that advises the government on issues affecting Americans with disabilities, in a letter to President Obama and Labor Secretary Tom Perez. “Surely we can do better than this,” read the letter.
Now, it appears that NCD and other advocacy groups’ push has spurred the administration to reverse course. “Under current law, workers whose productivity is affected because of their disabilities may be paid less than the wage paid to others doing the same job under certain specialized certificate programs,” states the relevant portion of the Executive Order, which Obama is expected to sign later on Wednesday. “Under this Executive Order, all individuals working under service or concessions contracts with the federal government will be covered by the same $10.10 per hour minimum wage protections.”
Advocates hailed the decision as a milestone in the fight for wage equality for the disabled. “The inclusion of nearly 50,000 workers with disabilities in the Executive Order affirms that no matter who you are or where you’re from, the opportunity to find competitive employment, in your community, alongside ones non-disabled peers is perhaps better than it has ever been,” said NCD Chairperson Jeff Rosen in a statement.
Americans with disabilities are about three times as likely to live in poverty compared to people without disabilities, and just 18 percent of the disabled participate in the workforce. Approximately 420,000 Americans with disabilities are employed under a 14(c) wage certificate, according to NCD. Approximately 95 percent of these Americans are employed in so-called “sheltered workshops” or “work centers” that employ larger numbers of people with disabilities — and often pay them less than the minimum wage.
Chester Finn, a visually impaired man and NCD Council member who told ThinkProgress about his experience being paid just $300 per month for performing standard factory labor in one such workshop, praised the Obama administration’s decision. “People are more productive when their contributions are appreciated,” said Finn in a statement. “Everything from boosting morale to improving work incentives leads to higher productivity which, in turn, improves the overall quality and efficiency of services provided to the government. In the end, everybody wins.”
But repealing the 14(c) provision in its entirety has proven to be an uphill battle. One bipartisan bill that would strike the provision within three years, H.R. 831, the Fair Wages for Workers With Disabilities Act of 2013, has been rated as having an eight percent chance of making it past committee by GovTrack.
“While some employers possessing special wage certificates claim to provide rehabilitation and training to disabled workers to prepare them for competitive employment, the fact that such employers can pay their workers less than the Federal minimum wage gives them an incentive to exploit the cheap labor provided by their disabled workers rather than to prepare those workers for integrated employment in the mainstream economy,” reads the text of the bill.
In an e-mail to ThinkProgress, Fair Wages for Workers With Disabilities Act author Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS) said, “This discrimination is backwards. The myth that disabled workers cannot be productive employees is awful. Congress should be encouraging independence, not forcing disabled workers into an endless cycle of government dependence. It’s simple — meaningful work deserves fair pay. This dated [14(c)] provision unjustly prohibits workers with disabilities from reaching their full potential. And it must be repealed.”