Angela Greene worked with a mobile cleaning crew at a sheltered workshop in South Carolina for 21 years. She worked Monday to Friday every week and made no more than $3.00 an hour.
Her hard work never earned her the full federal minimum wage, all because she has an intellectual disability.
Greene was one of an estimated 420,000 people with disabilities that have been paid a “subminimum wage”. The subminimum wage was made legal in 1938 through section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. This allows employers to apply for a certificate that makes it legal to pay people with disabilities a lower salary than those without.
People with disabilities working at sheltered workshops make an average of $3.34 an hour, according to a study done by the U.S. Commision on Civil Rights.
“The disability community is a very marginalized community, and we’re actually considered the largest minority group in the United States, and we’re still just treated like we’re less than second and third class citizens.” said Kimberly Tissot, president and CEO of Able South Carolina, a nonprofit organization that provides independent living services and assists people with disabilities in finding equal opportunity employment.
Able South Carolina has been fighting for years to eliminate subminimum wages at the state level. Now, the effort is going national.
President Biden earlier this year proposed eliminating the subminimum wage as part of his $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, which would also have raised the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025. The bill would have made the national minimum wage applicable to all part time workers, including people with disabilities. But, when the senate parliamentarian ruled against raising the national minimum wage, the subminimum wage survived.
Since this defeat to ending the subminimum wage nationally, there has been next to no discussion on a federal level as to how to give equal employment and pay opportunities to people with disabilities.
Greene was able to find work outside of the sheltered workshop as a dining room attendant at South Carolina University, where she now works 20 hours a week and makes full minimum wage.
“I wish that eventually, they [people with disabilities] can get out of the sheltered workshops, because everybody deserves a chance,” Greene said.
But there are many people with disabilities around the country that are either unemployed, or working for a subminimum wage. According to data collected by the LEAD Center, a research organization that collects data on employment of people with disabilities, there was a reported number of 54,572 people with disabilities working under 14(c) certificate holding entities in 2020, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 17.9 percent of people with disabilities over 16 years old are employed.
Poverty rates are also much higher for people with disabilities. According to the National Disability Institute, the poverty rate for adults with a disability is more than twice the rate of adults with no disability (27 percent compared with 12 percent). The subminimum wage is a major reason for the high poverty rates, according to the Center for American Progress, a progressive group.
Because the national minimum wage increase was not passed, Able South Carolina has proposed a bill in their legislature to end the subminimum wage in South Carolina.
The bill is a joint resolution that would have a three year transition period to create a task force to help employers change to offer people with disabilities equal and fair employment. This bill passed unanimously in the subcommittee, passed in the full committee and as of April 8, the senate. It is now on its way to the House.
If this passes, South Carolina will be the seventh state to end the subminimum wage.
But the bill is facing opposition.
“In the committee meeting, some of the providers have been the employers who are paying the subminimum wage,” Tissot said. “Some of the representatives are thinking that they can continue to devalue the lives of people with disabilities.”
Sandy Jordan, the director of employment programs for Able South Carolina, said that these employers who participate in section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act benefit financially from paying people with disabilities a subminimum wage.
On Top of paying workers with disabilities less than minimum wage, employers are hiring these workers through medicaid programs. Because of this, they are not paying a share of their workers insurance premiums. This is saving these employers money, encouraging them to continue to participate in 14(c).
“Sometimes, people with disabilities don’t really even have a choice on what type of job they do, and their rate is based on production,” Jordan said. “These folks are not given accommodations for their disability, and they’re being paid less.”
Other pushback to end the subminimum wage comes from those who believe that sheltered workshops offer alternative employment options to those who cannot produce work to the same degree as someone without a disability, and that the subminimum wage opens up more doors for people with disabilities and gives them work opportunities they previously did not have access to.
Covey, a non-profit organization and United Way partner agency committed to making opportunities for people with disabilities in their Wisconsin community, wrote a blog titled, “Section 14(c) and Subminimum Wage,” where they list several benefits to the subminimum wage. According to Covey, these benefits include a supportive work environment, financial success and life enrichment for employees with disabilities under 14(c) contracts.
“Without a commensurate wage, employees with disabilities may be subject to resentment from their coworkers who produce more than them, yet get paid the same,” the blog writes. “Long term, employees with disabilities could be dismissed from their work due to low productivity, adding to the already grim unemployment figures.”
Able South Carolina and other advocates against section 14(c) say that people with disabilities deserve an integrated work environment and can work just as hard as people without disabilities.
“Research after research shows that people with disabilities actually have higher attendance rates than those without disabilities,” Jordan said. “At the end of the day, people with disabilities need to have access to a variety of different employment opportunities, so that way they can learn what type of job works best for them.”
Greene is proud of her work in the University dining hall, but says she aspires to do even more and dreams of working in social services.
“I always say the biggest disability is attitude,” Green said. “How do you know what a person can do if you don’t try to help them get to where they need to go?”