Right now under the federal statute Section 14(c) of the Wages and the Fair Labor Standards Act, workers with disabilities can legally be paid less than minimum wage. The National Organization on Disability (NOD) and other advocates are pushing to do away with this provision, which they argue is an antiquated violation of people’s civil rights.
In mid-November, NOD chairman, former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge spoke to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights at a public briefing in Washington D.C., arguing against Section 14(c) and advocating for a federal bill, the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act. The act is sponsored by Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) and Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA).
“In 2019, there is no excuse for treating an entire class of workers differently from others based solely on the characteristic of disability,” Ridge said at the meeting. “Such treatment is discriminatory, just as it would be if applied to individuals of a specific race, gender, or religious affiliation. Much work needs to be done to give all Americans, including those who have disabilities, a chance to have the financial freedom and security we all desire. Phasing out Section 14(c) is a step that we can take right now to move closer to that goal.”
Charles Catherine, the special assistant to NOD’s president, Carol Glazer, spoke to DiversityInc about 14(c)’s implications and NOD’s work along with others to advocate against it. Catherine, who is blind, said he knows from personal experience and stories from his friends how difficult it is for people with disabilities to land jobs. He said people often underestimate people with disabilities’ capabilities.
“If they do have jobs, they have jobs that are way below their potential,” he said. “I remember having this painful conversation with a friend of mine where she was saying that it’s tough for her to go to college reunion meetings because everyone else doing so well.”
Catherine said misconceptions about people with disabilities and lack of representation in the media and other public arenas have contributed to the politics surrounding 14(c) and its perpetuation. The section was established in 1938, and at the time was seen as progressive because it encouraged employers to hire people with disabilities, albeit for scant pay.
“It came about as a piece of legislation back in the day when unemployment was even more of a problem than it is now and it was seen as a step forward,” Catherine said. “Let companies pay people sub-minimum wage to at least give them a chance to have a job, people who at the time especially and still today were seen as less productive.”
But now, under 14(c), some people are still making exponentially less than minimum wage. Catherine said some people make as less than $2 — or even just mere cents — per hour. He said he sees the phasing out of 14(c) as a civil rights issue and not just an issue regarding minimum wage.
Other marginalized groups, he said, are legally protected from this kind of discrimination, but because people with disabilities are seen as less productive, they continue to legally earn subminimum wage.
“We still think about people with disabilities as less, no matter how you slice it,” Catherine said. “Because of this lack of awareness and the stigma … employment is not really moving. And so, it really is about all of us.”
He said he believes NOD and other advocates have been successful in achiving certain accommodations — like building accessibility — for people with disabilities but that employment has been an area where they haven’t made much progress.
In the U.S., 40.6 million people — 12.6% of civilian noninstitutionalized population —live with some kind of disability. As of 2018, the median yearly income for people with a disability was $23,006. The median for people without a disability was $35,070, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Catherine also explained the diversity of the umbrella of disability. Disabilities can be cognitive or physical and range in severity and visibility. He said often subgroups within the disability category have their own agendas, but employment discrimination is something that everyone can get behind.
Certain state have already done away with 14(c) and the option of paying people with disabilities subminimum wage. In 2015, New Hampshire became the first, followed by Maryland in 2016 and Alaska in 2018. This year, Texas mandated that all contractors who work within the state’s government-funded Purchasing from People with Disabilities program pay their workers at least minimum wage. Oregon plans to phase out subminimum wage by 2023, and Nevada is increasing their minimum wage and eliminating subminimum wage for workers with disabilities and other groups. Connecticut has also begun considering phasing out subminimum wage.
Catherine said NOD’s plan to push the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act is to highlight the states that have already made the change, tell the stories of those who have been affected by 14(c) and encourage employers to think creatively about how they can utilize the skills of people with disabilities.
“The hope is that within a year or two, it would be in the Senate and passed, but the problem is we need to rally more support around the bill. We need more bi-partisan supporters and support. We need more co-sponsors for the bill.”
However, Catherine says, he is optimistic that the bill will be passed — It’s just a matter of how soon.
NOD’s “Look Closer” campaign encourages employers to notice and value people with disabilities can bring to their companies. Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 established affirmative action for federal contractors and subcontractors, toward the goal of making 7% of all hires people with disabilities. But Catherine said hiring people with disabilities is not just about meeting a quota.
“I think it will send a very powerful message about the way we think about self-worth and the way we think about inclusion,” Catherine said. “We shouldn’t hire people with disabilities as an act of charity. We should do it because it’s good business. We should do it because diversity is a good thing. We should do it because … this is a very tight labor market right now. People are struggling to hire and find people who are talented. And yet, you have this huge, untapped pool of employees with disabilities that is just waiting out there and not hired because we have misconceptions. Because we think it’s OK to pay them nothing. Because we don’t think they’re worth as much.”