Low Productivity: More of An Excuse than Obstacle to Real Work

Low productivity assumptions

Several issues reside in the heated discussions over the need to change the traditional day service model for people with disabilities. But the defining one relates to competing beliefs about productivity: 

Can individuals with the most significant disabilities be productive in the workplace, such that sub-minimum wage is unnecessary? 

Those in the individualized community employment sector, myself included, believe yes. We use a zero-exclusion model, reject sub-minimum wage (referred to as 14(c), its legislative shorthand), and no group employment. Looking at various US national databases, these efforts represent probably only about 15% of people with developmental disabilities receiving day services.

Those providers in the much larger majority, the traditional day service sector, utilize segregated work centers and sub-minimum wage, and often rely on group employment models such as enclaves or crews. Yet, the functional levels of those they serve do not appear different from those in individualized community employment.
It appears that the loudest argument against ending 14c sub-minimum wage has been that its removal will take away employment opportunities for those with the most severe challenges. For example, on this blog, commenters talk about how, without a workshop or sub-minimum wage, their son or daughter would be left with little to do. And professional lobbyists for agencies providing more traditional services make the same case. In a recent In These Times article, reporter Mike Elk noted that even leading congressional disability advocate Sen. Tom Harkin will not pursue ending sub-minimum wage, stating that he “has heard from a number of advocates for people with disabilities that eliminating the sub-minimum wage option without having a real plan to create sustainable employment alternatives would be detrimental to Americans with disabilities currently working in 14(c) settings.” 
In reality, there is a real plan that has been around for over 30 years. It’s called supported employment. And eliminating 14(c) does not completely reflect what advocates have actually proposed, which is eventually eliminating it by phasing it out. The article then notes a key source of the position of retaining sub-minimum wage was Harkin’s former top disability staffer who now works as a lobbyist for ACCSES, a coalition of providers. He is quoted as saying: 

  • “Would you hire somebody who is working at 30% and not meeting productivity goals?” 
  • “What if somebody is not capable with or without an accommodation of working at a regular job?  Should we force them into a rehabilitation program with no work or sit at home and watch TV?” 
  • “If you eliminated 14(c), you would lose the opportunity for these people to be trained to be employed.”
Examine these statements carefully. What does 30% productivity mean? Where did it come from? As demonstrated in a workshop? On what tasks? With what support? Is this rate set in stone? How reliable is this a predictor of job success in the community?

A number like that put on a person is damaging; it is just an arbitrary label like any other stereotype.

The assertion that removing sub-minimum wage will lead to job loss is not only unproven, but false. This is demonstrated by the many workers across the US with very challenging disabilities who are working at minimum wage or better, yet whose productivity ratings in traditional (segregated) work training settings were extremely low. It also sets up a false choice (i.e., low paid work or none at all). This kind of thinking is only true if you have a narrow (and I would argue obsolete) view of job placement, productivity, and what people are capable of.

Here is the missing piece: The best predictor of job success is not whether we can convince employers to let people work at lower standards for lower wages; it is how well we customize employment and provide job supports to meet productivity demands. It is inherently unfair to close perceived productivity gaps by reducing the wages of those who need money the most, especially when we have other proven tools to enhance productivity. 

Essentially, human service agencies have relied on sub-minimum wage as an entry tool to access jobs (or keep people “busy” in workshops) in situations that are probably not well-matched nor sufficiently supported or accommodated to enhance good productivity. While it might be somewhat understandable, given the pressure on providers to met job goals, it is a poor solution to the chronic history of unemployment of those with disabilities. With better training and using existing job customization tools, sub-minimum wage is not necessary.

The continuing use of sub-minimum wage is actually hindering our ability to promote and provide well-matched employment. It has become an obstacle, first because of its misuse (the ongoing documentation of many instances of low wage exploitation alone should cause it to end). And secondly, because it has caused providers to rely on a “low cost” plea for job placement, rather than investing in the real task of developing the skills job developers need to produce a more productive job situation.

There are likely many, who after reading this, will still not agree, thinking such job matches and supports such as I describe are unrealistic for most. Note that such customized employment is indeed already being accomplished in many places. In a future blog, I will to try to explain more about how to individualize jobs such that productivity can be reached to justify commensurate wages.

Productivity, at first glance, seems to be just a matter of how fast you do what is given to you. But dig deeper, and you see that is more about how well the worker is matched and supported to accomplish something needing to be done. And the answer on succeeding in that, though challenging, is up to the provider’s abilities at customizing, accommodating, carving, training, and more.

Lobbyists for day programs hanging on to sub-minimum wage as an answer for their belief about those “not capable of work” need to rethink the message they are giving. “He has 30% productivity” is no better than any other discriminatory disability stereotype, and it flies in the face of federal law where there is a presumption of employability. And it’s a damn shame that Senator Harkin has accepted it as fact.

The Fallacy of Low Productivity: Why People with Disabilities Are Relegated to Segregated Facilities at Low Wages

In a recent class I was facilitating, I again ran into the argument from someone that people with disabilities need sheltered workshops because they are not productive enough to be in the business world. Aside from the moral issue of segregating a whole class of people, let us address this stereotype of non-productiveness.

There is no doubt that some individuals with disabilities are slower in certain tasks, depending on the task and the disability. Of course this statement is also generally true of all people, depending on the task and the skill. The thing about productivity in a sheltered workshop is that it is largely confined to a limited scope of work, typically packaging, assembly, shipping, or some other rather repetitive task. If you happen to be slow on these type of tasks, or make too many mistakes, then you will be judged as not ready for prime time – a real job. The answer by the disability professional is typically then to provide training – year after year after year…

But this is inherently unfair. 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.

Alberto might earn pennies a day for his slow pace assembling a business mailing, but at a health club where he welcomes customers and checks their membership cards, he might be at 100% for the employer. That is, with a little help, he does the job he is asked. He likes the work, the people, and it makes him feel good. He also has the supports he needs to succeed. Thus, he is motivated. And, he is good at what the employer needs.

This is productivity. A role for the disability professional, then, is not to pass judgment on who is productive to earn the right to a job, based on pretty invalid information. It is to figure out what the person needs to do and 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.

Update to the Subminimum Wage Issue

Here is an interesting development concerning the sub-minimum wage issue (see my previous post). Six states enacted measures last year to raise the minimum wage. Two of the six – Ohio and Missouri – included exemptions for workers with disabilities from the minimum wage provisions. The other four – Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Montana – did not include in their laws any language that would exempt such employees from their new state minimum wage.

Now Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard has issued an opinion stating that workers with developmental disabilities are not exempt from that state’s new minimum wage that voters approved last November in Proposition 202. The new minimum wage of $6.75 an hour took effect Jan. 1.

Goddard concluded that the “special” minimum wage authorized by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act for workers with disabilities was not incorporated into the language of Proposition 202. Employers in the state previously were allowed to pay a lower minimum wage to individuals with disabilities commensurate with their productivity.

This issue will probably be a battle now. I am on the side of the law as it now stands. Minimum wage should be for everyone – and for those individuals with disabilities who need support for their productivity, let us use what we now know through supported employment 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.

A copy of the opinion can be accessed at http://www.azag.gov/opinions/2007/I07-002.pdf

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.