The old labor motto goes, “From each according to ability, to each according to need,” but hundreds of thousands of people are stuck in jobs that pay according to their disability, and end up with jobs that match neither ability nor need.
Although federal labor law’s guiding principle is “equal pay for equal work,” workers with disabilities are categorically restricted from earning equal pay under antiquated federal labor laws, and physically barred from regular workplaces. People with disabilities are literally stuck on a second-class wage scale, based on the assumption that they lack the competence to be equally productive. The structural bias ingrained in the labor market has left more than 80 percent of people with disabilities out of the workforce.
But amid rising debates on social inequality, the political conversation on fair labor for people with disabilities is shifting from sympathy to equity. Disability rights got boosted at the Democratic National Convention, with a platform provision for abolishing the so-called “sub-minimum wage” for workers with disabilities. The move follows years of grassroots and legislative advocacy on the state and federal levels to dismantle policies that restrict pay or job access for workers with disabilities.
The sub-minimum wage remains a powerful, and condescending, discriminatory barrier, say rights advocates. The Fair Labor Standards Act provision known as 14(c) allows some bosses to seek waivers, known as “exemptions,” to pay substandard wages to workers with impairments—in some cases under $1 per hour. Since the New Deal, the rules have been incrementally whittled down, so that instead of ensuring opportunity for workers who would otherwise be excluded, many segregated programs for workers with disabilities—typically low-grade jobs doing rote tasks like assembling housewares—can effectively pay whatever they want—if the firms certify the wages are “commensurate” for their duties (an arbitrary standard prone to exploitation).
Some changes are already underway. The Labor Department just tightened standards for granting employers exemptions, mandating that workers in sub-minimum-wage jobs be provided transitional services focused on integration into community-based jobs, and stipulating that workers under age 24 could not be placed in exempt jobs without first being offered transitional services. A recent executive order raised minimum wages for federal contract workers with disabilities.