[tabi] Fwd: Article: Legislation to pay minimum wage for disabled

  • From: Lighthouse of the Big Bend <lighthousebigbend@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: tabi <tabi@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Mon, 14 Nov 2011 10:09:58 -0500

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Carrin, JoAnn [mailto:JoAnn.Carrin@xxxxxxxxxxxxx]
Sent: Monday, November 14, 2011 08:41 AM
Subject: Article: Legislation to pay minimum wage for disabled

Stearns backing effort to raise wages for disabled

A bill would require employers to pay the minimum wage.

By Bill Thompson, Staff writer, Gainesville Sun

Published: Sunday, November 13, 2011.

For more than 70 years, as the rest of the American workforce has stood on
an earnings floor they could not fall through, disabled workers have largely
served at the whim of their employers - and the federal government
sanctioned it.

U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns seeks to correct that. The Ocala Republican recently
introduced legislation that requires employers to pay disabled workers the
federal minimum wage.

While Republicans are typically hostile to boosting the minimum wage,
Stearns said disabled Americans, especially those who have served their
country in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are owed an "opportunity to
fully participate in our society and in the workplace."

"Although new technologies provide the disabled with greater opportunities,
they still face many obstacles, including lower wages," Stearns, chairman of
the House Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee, noted in an email.

"To promote equal treatment, I am offering a bill eliminating the provision
in the Fair Labor Standards Act allowing employers to pay the disabled less
than the federal minimum wage."

Some advocates for the disabled applaud the move, saying it would bring them
some overdue economic justice.

Critics, however, assert that abolishing the waiver program would create an
opening for employers to simply dump disabled employees.

The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act codified the federal minimum wage, setting
it then at 25 cents an hour.

The law also allowed the Labor Department to grant employers waivers to set
a subminimum wage for workers "whose earning capacity is impaired by age or
physical or mental deficiency or injury."

At the time, the floor was set at 75 percent of the minimum wage or based on
the workers' "earning capacity," depending on where the employees worked.

While the private sector hired some disabled employees at the subminimum
rate, many handicapped workers worked in what were known as "sheltered
workshops" run by charities and social service agencies, according to a 2005
Congressional Research Service report.

Those had no bottom wage amount.

Under amendments adopted in 1966, the report noted, disabled workers were to
be moved toward the full minimum wage enjoyed by non-disabled employees.

But the changes also adjusted the floor for the disabled downward to 50
percent of the minimum wage and established "work activities centers," which
were designed to be therapeutic workplaces for the severely disabled.

Employers at the activities centers had no minimum wage to abide by.

One result, the report notes, was that the number of activities centers
exploded, jumping roughly sevenfold between 1968 and 1981.

The number of other workshops that were subject to the 50 percent
requirement grew by about 170 percent over the same period.

Twenty-five years ago, Congress opted to change course again.

According to the congressional report, lawmakers were troubled by news
reports of disabled workers being exploited under the system set up in the

Congress in 1986 did away with the distinctions between the private sector,
sheltered workshops and the activities centers and also redefined the
subminimum wage to a rate "commensurate" with other workers in the community
doing the same type of work.

But that rate was still "related to the individual's productivity," the law

The congressional report observed that the subminimum wage option was
designed "to prevent curtailment of opportunities for employment" for the

The effects, however, were unclear.

"Such rates, because they are productivity-based, may fluctuate from one
production process to the next - from one day to the next. In practice, it
would appear, wage rates are set, essentially, at whatever the employer
determines the economic value of the worker to be and can document," the
report noted.

"The option of paying lower wages, some argue, encourages employers more
readily to hire the disabled and to spend the time to deal with their
presumed idiosyncrasies. Whatever their productive level, it is argued, the
sub-minimum wage opens the door to employment: thus - an opportunity wage,"
the report concluded.

However, "others view the issue differently. ... Some argue that the
subminimum wage option inflicts an additional burden: The disabled worker
(in the context of Section 14(c)) must prove that he is sufficiently
productive to merit at least the minimum wage."

It is this argument that Stearns - joined by Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y. - hopes
to end with the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act of 2011.

The bill would essentially end the waiver program and institute the federal
minimum wage - now $7.25 an hour - for disabled employees.

The program would be phased out for the private sector within a year of the
bill's enactment, within two years for government agencies and within three
years for nonprofit groups.

It's unclear how many workers the bill would affect.

According to the Congressional Research Service report, the waiver program
covered about 247,000 workers in the mid-1990s.

"Although the disabled have made significant progress in achieving the
American dream, they still face unfairness in the workplace under a
provision that allows employers to pay workers with disabilities less than
the federal minimum wage," Stearns said in a statement when his bill was
introduced on Oct. 4.

"Protections for disabled workers were excluded in the Fair Labor Standards
Act in the mistaken belief that they were not as productive as other
workers. Workers with disabilities contribute to our economy and to our
society, and they deserve equal pay for equal work."

The bill was immediately endorsed by some advocates for the disabled.

Dr. Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, cheered
Stearns and Bishop.

"The Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act is a long-overdue effort
to correct an injustice written into a law meant to protect all American
workers from abuse and exploitation," Maurer said in a statement.

"Workers with disabilities were excluded from the protections of the Fair
Labor Standards Act because of the false belief that we cannot be as
productive as Americans without disabilities. Courage and creativity are
required to replace the misguided benevolence that has historically shaped
policies toward people with disabilities with real opportunity for our equal
employment and full participation in the workplace.

"We applaud Representatives Stearns and Bishop, and we hope that a
significant majority of their colleagues possess the courage and creativity
to end over 70 years of exploitation of people with disabilities," Maurer

Some local groups affiliated with Maurer's group have passed resolutions in
support of it or are encouraging its members to lobby Congress to pass
Stearns' bill.

Former New York Gov. David Paterson, who is legally blind, was among them,
saying in a statement, "This anachronism must be stricken from America's
statute books, and workers with disabilities must receive equal pay for
equal work and an equal opportunity to succeed."

Others, however, see pitfalls for disabled employees if the bill is enacted
- believing employers will use the end of the waiver program as a reason to
cull the disabled from their workforces.

"It is cruel to take away jobs from people like my son who has a functional
level of a 5-year-old, but he can do something and he is so proud to be able
to receive a small check at the end of the week. There are over 400 people
who would cry if this bill should pass," Bev Hermon, a Republican and former
member of the Arizona Legislature, posted on the website govtrack.us, which
follows federal legislation wending through Congress.

"I have a little brother who is 24 and has autism. He works at a sheltered
workshop for below minimum wages, and that's OK. Because if it wasn't for
the sheltered workshop he would have nothing at all to do with his life
except sit at home and draw on Social Security," posted Missouri resident
David Allen.

"If the workshop suddenly has to pay all its client workers the state
minimum wage, it would not be able to compete and subsequently would have to
shut down. This would put my little brother and hundreds of his friends out
of a job, and back at home with nothing to do with their lives. I fully
understand that the people with physical disabilities are trying to help
themselves, and I support them on that. But this bill will unintentionally
hurt the people with mental disabilities, like my little brother."

Copyright C 2011 Gainesville.com - All rights reserved. Restricted use only.


JoAnn Carrin

Communications Director

Division of Blind Services


Lighthouse of the Big Bend
Guiding People Through Vision Loss
3071 Highland Oaks Terrace
Tallahassee, FL 32301
(850) 942-3658
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