Sub-Minimum Wages: A Disability Oxymoron

Sub-Minimum Wages: A Disability Oxymoron

Arizona state legislators recently held a hearing to review the state’s new minimum-wage law, which provides $6.75 an hour and does not exempt workers with disabilities from minimum wage. The hearing was packed, with advocates for both sides of the issue. In the US, certain workers, including those with disabilities, can be paid less than minimum wage, unless superceded by state law which can provide for a higher minimum wage.

The federal law, called the Fair Labor Standards Act, includes a provision for a special wage for workers with disabilities. Its purpose is purportedly “to prevent the curtailment of employment opportunities.” Wages must be “commensurate with” (equivalent to) those paid to “experienced workers without disabilities employed in the vicinity for essentially the same type, quality, and quantity of work.” The wage must be tied to the workers’ productivity.

Suppose a job entails putting together a package, something the average non-disabled worker in that area does making nine dollars an hour. And suppose that the average worker can produce ten packages in an hour. Then this becomes our standard for any worker in the workshop doing the same kind of task. Except our worker, for whatever reasons related to his or her disability, can produce only one package in an hour. That means the hourly rate will be one-tenth of the norm, or ninety cents an hour.

Again, this is a topic we mention in Raymond’s Room. Workshop advocates defend less than minimum as fair, and in fact I have seen the use of sub-minimum wages as a marketing tool when appealing to employers for work. The appeal goes something like this: you can get your work done and pay only for what it is worth. But the reality is that the offer comes across like this: we have a special deal – workers with disabilities will work at 30% off!

The bigger issue is that the reason many people with disabilities earn so little when compared to a normed sample is that the work is poorly matched to their interests and capabilities. Workers with disabilities aren’t always slower by 50%, 80%, or 90% on all work tasks – it depends on the task, the person, and the job fit. When there is a gap, the first solution is to re-analyze the job, not reduce the pay.

At the Arizona hearing the arguments seem to revolve around the fairness of setting a minimum applicable to all people, versus the need for less than minimum wage in order for people with disabilities to have access to employment, due to their lower productivity. In order to reach a compromise, the state is considering designating workers with disabilities as trainees in a vocational program. Again, to me, this is the wrong solution – creating a special class of worker in order to pay them less.

The solution instead? We should work to try to figure out how to get the work supports and job tasks so that the employer gets a productive worker. It is not a question of disability, it is a question of support and job matching. Here is what I say in the book:

Minimum wage should be the minimum – by definition, the lowest you can go. If there is a productivity gap, let us work with the employer to solve it in some way so that the cost does not come out of the pocket of the person who can least afford it – the worker with a disability.