PERSPECTIVES | Do We Actually Want A Minimum Wage?

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March 2019

Those putting together swag bags for this year’s Oscars were revealed to be people with disabilities paid pennies a day. Adelante, a company from New Mexico, was sued for offering “dead-end sweatshop jobs with few chances for advancement or transition to better employment.”

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 created the exemption allowing businesses to hire people with disabilities at less than a minimum wage. The intention of the law was to create self-sufficiency and independence for people with disabilities, but that wasn’t the impact.

The exemption has produced a sheltered workshop model, where many people work on the same task in a segregated setting. “It’s a cookie-cutter solution that involves cramming people with disabilities into a single job based on location, rather than finding the person’s strengths and allowing them to pursue a job that utilizes those strengths,” said Shaun Bickley, a self-advocate with autism who led the campaign to ban less than minimum wage in Seattle.

“The subminimum wage segregates and traps workers in dead-end jobs, grounded in the low expectation that the livelihoods of disabled people aren’t as valuable as those of other workers,” said Rebecca Cokley, Director of the Disability Justice Initiative at The Center for American Progress.

“The sub-minimum wage for people with disabilities is really a relic—it entered the law in the 1930s at a time when we didn’t have a sense that people with disabilities could work in the competitive economy,” said Sam Bagenstos, a University of Michigan law professor who served in the Department of Justice under President Obama.

While a subminimum wage may not be ideal, some are concerned that there will be fewer employment options without it. Clayton Wright of Washington State shared his concerns about his son Aaron losing his job, “Children like mine have a significant enough disability that they can’t work productively at a minimum wage in any kind of reasonableness to the employer.” He “believes that if subminimum wage is eliminated, kids like his will be out of a job.”

Judy Owen of Florida suggests that there’s more than the law that needs to change, like schools better educating children or competitive employers opening their workplaces to people with disabilities. “If I wait on the government to fix this, my son’s employment options ten years from now seem bleak.”

“Being able to integrate workers with disabilities into the workplace is going to help society...We need to continue to be open minded about what all people can contribute to the workforce, and I think the less we focus on numeric productivity, the more we gain from a human standpoint,” said employment attorney Christina Thomas.