Pennies for Pay Must End

Pennies for Pay Must End

Recently, the Green Bay Press Gazette featured an article that reviewed the ongoing debate over the use of subminimum wages for people with disabilities. The publication found over 10,000 Wisconsin citizens with disabilities earn less than minimum wage, ranging as low as 2 cents per hour. The article also reviews a local sheltered workshop where 96% of workers are paid below minimum.

Readers of this blog know my position on this: A legal minimum wage should be for all citizens. For those individuals with disabilities who need support for their productivity, disability professionals must use current employment practices and technology to customize their job and their support. We should not solve hiring and productivity problems on the backs of those who can least afford it – workers with disabilities.

The argument for sub-minimum wage seems to revolve around the need for less-than-minimum-wage in order for people with disabilities to have access to employment, due to their perceived and sometimes actual lower productivity on certain work tasks. But the bigger issue is that the reason many people with disabilities are less productive when compared to a normed sample is that the work they are offered is poorly matched to their interests and capabilities, or they are not provided needed accommodations. Workers with disabilities aren’t always slower by 50%, 80%, or 90% on all work tasks – it depends on the task, the person, the job fit, and the job accommodations.
When there is a gap between performance needed and produced, the first solution is to re-analyze the job and the person’s capabilities and support needs, not reduce the pay. We should work to try to figure out how to obtain work supports and match 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.
What is interesting in the article are the comments of a local workshop director and some of the posted comments of the article. They express typical criticisms of those of us wanting to remove the sub-minimum wage barrier:

The stereotypes — including sweatshop-like conditions — “just aren’t true,” … pointing to… openness, clean working conditions and the fact that many employees have chosen to continue working for the organization for decades.

This story is about a group of liberals who want to do good but have no idea what harm will come from their inept actions. You really feel that unemploying this sector of the work force is a good idea? You would feel much better if these people were on benefits instead?

People aren’t being forced to work there … they have a choice.

You start raising the expected Wages, too?…….Expect Charity to disappear
Back away, Do-Gooders……….all you’re doing is feverishly paving the road to Hades

This illustrates some assumptions of many of those who manage, fund, or refer people to workshops – that it should be their choice and that without the small pay rate, there would be no employment. These are false assumptions. I discuss the choice argument in other posts. While I believe we need to stop placing people in workshops for a variety of reasons related to unnecessary segregation, I also think that the pay rate can be exploitive, and the work far too constrictive to menial work unrelated to people’s skills and interests.

There is no doubt that some individuals with disabilities are slower in certain tasks, depending on the task, the skills and the disability. Of course this statement is also generally true of all people. The thing about productivity in a sheltered workshop or enclave, or in a poorly matched or supported job, is that, one, it is largely confined to a limited scope of work, typically packaging, assembly, shipping, landscaping, cleaning or some other rather repetitive task. If you happen to be slow on these types of tasks, make too many mistakes, or just plain disinterested, then you will be judged as not ready for a real job. Two, these workplaces are not always the place for maximum creativity in job support, leading to a further performance drag on the worker.
Productivity is largely related to the match of skill and task, but it is also related to motivation, the sense of belonging, wages, social relationships, self-esteem, the assistance and training you get, and other factors. For example, some jobs require skills other than speed (e.g., accuracy, good interpersonal skills). Thus, the focus on work rate as the only criteria for wage determination can be inappropriate. Furthermore, the actual methods used for time sampling are often faulty. The conditions under which people are being timed as well as the work environment itself can be unnatural.
Mike might earn pennies a day for his slow pace assembling a business mailing, but at the YMCA where he welcomes customers and checks their membership cards, he might be at 100% productivity for the employer. That is, with a little help, he does the job asked. Success comes from liking the work, the people, and this makes him feel good. He also has the supports needed to succeed. Thus, he is motivated. And, he is good at what the employer needs.
This is real productivity. The law does not allow a disability professional to pass judgment on who is productive to earn the right to a job based on incomplete or invalid information. And nor should it allow anyone to determine that an individual is only qualified to earn pennies an hour. This disability system needs to figure out what a person wants to do, needs to do, and needs to have, to be productive. It means finding the right job match and giving the right supports. 

Productivity isn’t fixed. Nor is the setting in which it is assessed. Minimum wage should be the minimum – by definition, the lowest you can go. If there is a productivity gap for a particular employee with a disability, let us work with an employer to solve it in some way so that the cost does not come from the worker who is already likely to be living below the poverty level. Special wage certificates are an “easy out” and no real solution to unemployment and underemployment. And the irony is that these often “token wages” are applied to a group of people who are the most in need of income.

One comment


Then why in the hell would one care to employ a disabled person if it takes the extra effort. There has to be an incentive for the capitalistic boss to give an opportunity to the disabled in this recessionary enviornment.