Every day, thousands of people with disabilities across the country wake up and head out to their jobs. They put in a hard day’s work, just like any other American, and earn a paycheck that supports their ability to live and play in their community.
And yet for some, that’s not the whole story. Right now in America, nearly half a million people with disabilities are working for less than minimum wage — earning an average of $3.34 an hour — while being subjected to demeaning time trials to determine what fraction of a wage they should earn — and it’s being done legally. This week, Congress will hold a hearing to discuss the future of the subminimum wage for people with disabilities.
This subminimum wage law, also known as provision 14c of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), was written nearly 100 years ago as a stop-gap measure designed to incentivize employers into giving people with disabilities a job. This incentive was never meant to be permanent. Its continued use today is inconsistent with modern disability policy and the experience of myriad companies who have successfully hired, trained, and retained a productive workforce inclusive of employees with disabilities.
Earlier this year, Reps. Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottHouse passes bill to ease standards for age discrimination cases House to take big step on eliminating Trump-era rules Virginia attorney general survives primary challenge MORE (D-Va.) and Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersHouse GOP to launch climate caucus New Alzheimer’s drug sparks backlash over FDA, pricing FDA approves first new Alzheimer’s drug in almost 20 years MORE (R-Wash.) introduced bipartisan legislation, the Transformation to Competitive Integrated Employment Act, to finally repeal this outdated and discriminatory law. The elimination of 14c continues to be a source of heated discussion, as employers still utilizing it argue its elimination will result in job losses for people with disabilities. Many family members of these employees fear the law’s elimination will make it harder for their loved ones in a society that is still in many ways not inclusive or accommodating for certain disabilities.
As the president & CEO of Melwood, a nonprofit that employs nearly 1,000 people with disabilities, I am deeply sympathetic to these concerns, but I’ve also seen a future beyond 14c. We have proven that, with proper training and adequate services, people with disabilities can be employed in competitive integrated or supported employment without the need for 14c.
Melwood voluntarily phased out our 14c certificate five years ago because we are committed to paying all of our employees a fair wage and recognized the detrimental impacts of this policy. Today, our bottom line has never been better, our morale has never been higher, and our productivity has never been greater. We pay an average of $15.68/hour and offer full benefits for our workforce in addition to providing job training, placement, and support services for the broader community of people with disabilities.
We need to stop looking at people with disabilities as a burden on employers and instead follow the data and recognize that a neurodiverse workforce is better for innovation, productivity, and the bottom line.
Melwood is proud to support the Transformation to Competitive Integrated Employment Act (H.R. 2373). We are pleased that the legislation includes a thoughtful and phased approach with additional resources and technical assistance for organizations still utilizing these certificates, ensuring that there will be a bridge to employment opportunities and continued services to people with disabilities currently earning below minimum wage. With this legislation and the leadership of Congressman Scott and Congresswoman McMorris Rodgers, we are finally close to delivering this victory for people with disabilities nationwide and we urge Congress to pass this important legislation.
Larysa Kautz is president and CEO of Melwood.