Let’s Move the Subminimum Wage, Sheltered Workshops to History Books

/ July 11, 2019

By Dwayne Webb

About the Author

Dwayne Webb is the program director of Employment and Day Services for St. John’s Community Services-Tennessee. Dwayne is the current vice president and former board chair of the Tennessee Association of People Supporting Employment First. Dwayne serves on Tennessee’s Employment First Task Force created by then-Gov. Bill Haslam. One of the primary roles of the Task Force is to identify state agency policies and procedures that create barriers and disincentives for employment of people with disabilities and develop recommendations to reduce or eliminate those barriers and disincentives to better meet the needs of individuals who desire employment. Dwayne has transformed his former agency’s segregated sheltered workshop and day habilitation programs to 100% fully integrated service models focused on employment and community participation. With more than 22 years of experience in the human services field in multiple facets of a provider agency for the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Dwayne has dedicated his life’s work to enhance the opportunities and further the development of all people with disabilities.

Our hope is that this weekly blog will offer information you want to know, so if you have a question you want answered about employment for people with disabilities or other mysteries of the world of work, please email me at janet.shouse@vumc.org.

As a young man I was drawn to the stories my grandmother would tell about her childhood. I would sit and listen in awe as she talked about the struggles and hardships she experienced growing up. Now, I am not referring to those stories we all have heard regarding walking 10 miles uphill both ways in the snow to school. I am talking about historic events that really shaped this country into what it is today. Events of the 1930s like the Great Depression, the New Deal and how President Franklin Delano Roosevelt aimed to restore prosperity to Americans once again.

During this time, a series of programs and projects were started to try to swiftly stabilize the economy and provide jobs and relief to the more than 15 million wage-earners who were unemployed across the country. One of the most important pieces of New Deal legislation as cited by President Roosevelt was the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. This act had a significant impact on the labor movement in the United States as it established regulations regarding “minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping, and child labor standards affecting full-time and part-time workers in the private sector and in Federal, State, and local governments”.

As much good as the Fair Labor Standards Act did for employment as we know it today, it also has done a great disservice to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities as it has allowed for the continuation of what is called the 14(c) wage certificate program. Eighty-one years after the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, we still find it acceptable as a society to pay an individual with a disability less than the prevailing wage rate, and to add insult to injury, we continue to keep this valuable work force from fully integrating into the workplace with their non-disabled peers. This happens because a 14(c) subminimum wage certificate allows what is known as a sheltered workshop or facility-based employment to exist and be profitable for the employer. The workers, on the other hand, make far less than $7.25 an hour.

As disability rights and community employment best practice methods have changed over the years, it has become clear that a subminimum wage is no longer necessary or acceptable. In fact, it is discriminatory. However, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division still issues 14(c) wage certificates to major organization like Ability One, Source America and others as a legal way to lessen opportunities for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities — who could work and thrive in competitive integrated employment — by automatically placing them in subminimum wage positions. We have been able to overcome so many of the attitudinal, institutional and environmental barriers that have plagued individuals for years. Why is it that we cannot move away from such an antiquated system as 14(c)? It’s definitely time and with the passage of the federal Transformation to Competitive Employment Act (H.R. 873/S. 260), it can be achieved.

The bipartisan Transformation to Competitive Employment Act will address barriers to employment and expand opportunities for competitive integrated employment for people with disabilities while phasing out subminimum wage certificates under Section 14(c) over a six-year period. This bill was introduced in the Senate by Sens. Bob Casey, D-PA, and Chris Van Hellen, D-MD, and in the House by Rep. Bobby Scott, D-VA, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-WA.

If approved, the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act will provide states, service providers, subminimum wage certificate holders, and other agencies with the resources they need to create competitive integrated employment service delivery models and the inclusive wrap-around services that some individuals with disabilities will need.

Eighty-one years of pennies on the dollar is 81 years of undue and unjust discrimination against individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It’s time to end the madness and ensure all workers enjoy the same equal rights and opportunities in the workplace by bringing an end to the 14(c) subminimum wage certificate program.

I want to thank Dwayne first of all for being a passionate advocate for people with disabilities and their rights to work in competitive integrated employment. He’s a longtime member of the TennesseeWorks Partnership, and a faithful member of the state’s Employment First Task Force. I also want to thank him for writing about a topic that to many of us seems like common-sense fairness, but one that still generates a great deal of emotion from those who still support subminimum wages and sheltered workshops. If you believe that 81 years is enough, I would invite you to contact your U.S. representative and your U.S. senators and share your views and experiences with them. As always, if you have questions, you are welcome to email me at janet.shouse@vumc.org. Thanks for reading!

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