To the Department of Labor: Workers with disabilities deserve equal pay

The practice of paying subminimum wages to people with disabilities is outdated and unjust. Today, across the United States nearly 230,000 people with disabilities are legally paid less than minimum wage for their work. Alongside the National Disability Rights Network, ADAPT, National Council on Disability Issues, and other national allies, 9to5 calls on our nation to do better. We have submitted a letter to the Department of Labor and support legislation to transition away from this practice to a Competitive, Integrated Employment model.

Here is an excerpt from our letter, written by Cathy Deppe, 9to5’s National Board Co-Chair. Pictured here are: Jadon, the son of 9to5 California chapter board member Christina DeHaro, and 9to5 member Diana marching at the 2019 Disability and Aging Capitol Action Day in Sacramento.

On behalf of 9to5, I urge the Department of Labor to end the legal practice of paying workers with disabilities a sub minimum wage, as allowed under FLSA Section 14(c). I am writing as Board Co-Chair of 9to5 National Association of Working Women, and as someone with personal and family experience with the issue of subminimum wages paid to people with disabilities: My sister and nephew have developmental and physical disabilities. My sister worked as a client in a sheltered workshop in Illinois for subminimum wages. My nephew has a job coach for his hospital job. I myself worked as staff at sheltered workshops in both upstate New York and San Jose, CA.

In sheltered workshops the production speed and accuracy of a non-disabled person receiving minimum wage is used to calculate the production of each person with a disability. If they packed half the amount of a non-disabled person, they received half of the minimum wage.

If this system for determining pay sounds complicated, it is. For a time, I was the one who collected individual production sheets, coded the work, multiplied the numbers, and sent in the report to produce paychecks that ranged from $5.00 to $80.00/week for over 100 people doing packing under supervision of job coaches. 

This is a miserable system and is horrifying to work with.  Workshop pay should be subsidized by government funding so that everyone earns at least minimum wage. Some workers with disabilities truly need the support of a workshop job.  Yet many are able to work their way out of the workshop and into jobs integrated in their communities, supervised by job coaches. And in either case, that person deserves for their work to be valued and compensated with a living wage. When my sister was placed in a hotel laundry, she worked too slowly to satisfy them.  One day she fell asleep on the job, and that was reason enough to fire her.  She was devastated.  I have a 20-year-old nephew with autism who is happily working such a job in a hospital, supervised as needed – in his case, once a week, by the program’s job coaches.    

All work has dignity and all workers must be respected.  Any one of us could one day need the support services of rehabilitation. 

We support two bills that provide a thoughtful approach to transitioning away from the practice of legal subminimum wages as allowed under Section 14(C) of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. Both the Raise the Wage Act (S 150/HR582) and The Transformation to Competitive Employment Act (S 260/HR 873) provide funding and technical support to transform business models and track outcomes over a six year period. This approach is also supported by the 2016 federal Advisory Committee on Increasing Competitive Integrated Employment for People with Disabilities appointed by the Department of Labor.  The Committee recommended phasing out the use of subminimum wage certificates and developing the services necessary to ensure that individuals receiving subminimum wages could instead have opportunities for competitive integrated employment.

9to5 and each of our state chapters strongly urge the Department to end the practice of allowing subminimum wages to be paid to people with disabilities, and instead focus its energies on promoting policies that will improve economic security for people with disabilities and empower all working people with the resources they need to support themselves.


Cathy Deppe, 9to5 National Board Co-Chair

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