As of Friday, Alaskan businesses will no longer be allowed to pay disabled workers less than the minimum wage, which is currently $9.84 an hour.
“Workers who experience disabilities are valued members of Alaska’s workforce,” said the state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development Acting Commissioner Greg Cashen, in a press release. “They deserve minimum wage protections as much as any other Alaskan worker.”
The state announced last week it would repeal the regulation first put in place in 1978. Alaska joins New Hampshire and Maryland as the first states to get rid of sub-minimum wage for employees with disabilities, an act which is entirely legal under federal law, and has been since 1938 when the Fair Labor Standards Act was implemented.
The minimum wage exception was initially created to help those with disabilities get jobs, but despite its intentions, the legislation still fell short. Disability advocates argue the law is outdated and that many disabled individuals can succeed in jobs earning minimum wage or more, and that no other class of people faces this kind of government-sanctioned wage discrimination. In addition to being paid a sub-minimum wage, employees with disabilities often perform their jobs in what are called “sheltered workshops.” This term is generally used to describe facilities that employ people with disabilities exclusively or primarily, but has been interpreted by disability advocates as a form of segregation in the workplace.
Goodwill Industries is arguably one of the biggest offenders when it comes to exploiting this kind of wage discrimination. The company is one of the largest employers for people with disabilities, many of whom are contracted by Goodwill through the government’s AbilityOne program, which ensures contracts are set aside for places that employ workers with disabilities.
Goodwill, however, is a $5.59 billion organization, and many argue they can afford to pay all of their workers a fair wage.
“You’ve got entities that are doing quite well, that are raking in donations, that get government contracts to make everything from military uniforms to…pens to whatever,” says Chris Danielsen, a spokesperson for the National Federation of the Blind told The Nation. “They get these contracts, and they’re paying their workers less than the minimum wage.”
Goodwill’s own CEO, Jim Gibbons, is blind. In 2015, he raked in more than $712,000 in salary and additional compensation while his disabled employees were making less than $9 an hour in some states.
In a comment to NBC News in 2013, Gibbons defended his salary and the million dollar salaries of other Goodwill executives. At the time, Goodwill’s total compensation for all its franchise CEOs was more than $30 million.
“These leaders are having a great impact in terms of new solutions, in terms of innovation, and in terms of job creation,” he said.
Speaking of those employees with disabilities working for less than minimum wage, he punted. “It’s typically not about their livelihood. It’s about their fulfillment. It’s about being a part of something. And it’s probably a small part of their overall program,” he added.
Just last week, disability activists were dealt a blow by the House of Representatives, which voted 225 to 192 in favor of a bill that would significantly weaken the Americans with Disabilities Act, letting businesses off the hook for failing to provide accessibility accommodations.
Twenty-two percent of Americans live with some form of disability and 13 percent of those experience mobility issues, such as walking or climbing stairs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The share of people with disabilities is higher among women and people of color: according to the CDC, one in four women have a disability and three in 10 non-Latinx Black people have a disability.
One in three adults who are able to work have reported having a disability, and half of those making less than $15,000 a year have reported a disability as well, according to the CDC’s numbers.