Ending Subminimum Wage for People with Disabilities
By Sara Hart Weir
On Capitol Hill, it’s a rare moment when you come across a bill being spearheaded by both the Chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor and the Ranking Member of the Committee on Energy and Commerce that also has the support of the Biden Administration, dating all the way back to a 2020 campaign promise.
The bipartisan Transformation to Competitive Integrated Employment Act (H.R. 2373), championed by Representatives Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), is a bill that you might not have heard of or even come across because it rarely makes national headlines or receives the attention it deserves. In my opinion, the bill is the most important proposal introduced in this Congress because it would reverse an 80-year-old law – most likely the worst law on the books. The bill would repeal the legal practice of paying people with disabilities subminimum wage.
Under Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), employers can apply for special certificates from the US Department of Labor (DOL) to legally pay individuals with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage. There is no minimum floor for the hourly wage that an employer can pay an individual with this certificate in place. Section 14(c) of the FLSA is a policy relic from the Depression Era politics of the 1930s. This statute established an exception to the minimum wage, allowing employers to set up sheltered workshops for people with disabilities to work, separated from the rest of the workforce. Today, there are approximately 321,131 Americans with disabilities who earn subminimum wages in segregated sheltered workshops, even if they live in the broader community.
People with disabilities remain the highest percentage of the population that is not only unemployed but also lives in poverty in the US. With archaic laws still on the books, we only further hold back generations of people with disabilities from achieving their financial freedom and the American Dream.
The Transformation to Competitive Integrated Employment Act is a commonsense bill that phases out the use of subminimum wage in the US over a six-year period. It uses a systematic approach to expand capacity for competitive, integrated employment, particularly for people transitioning out of sheltered workshops. It also offers federal funding and resources for organizations with sheltered workshops to adapt their business models.
With the introduction of H.R. 2373 and organizations like Creative Spirit; self-advocates like my former colleague, Kayla McKeon; and fellow activists like Keely Cat-Wells in Hollywood all building momentum; there is real hope for eliminating subminimum wage for people with disabilities. Perhaps most importantly, the solution, passing the Transformation to Competitive Integrated Employment Act, is on the table, and it is backed by US Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle, the Biden Administration, the US Civil Rights Commission, and the National Council on Disability.
I’m honored to help Engage shed light on this outdated practice and on what I believe to be the commonsense, bipartisan solution to modernize public policy and spur competitive employment for people with disabilities. As a member of the Steering Committee, I’m also delighted to see an entire edition of The Thread dedicated to the economic challenges facing the disability community that features leading activists and close friends of mine from throughout the years.
Sara Hart Weir is the former President and CEO of the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS) and most recently a candidate for US Congress in Kansas’ Third Congressional district. She is a member of the Steering Committee for Engage.