Workers With Disabilities Frequently Paid Less Than Minimum Wage

Straight out of my “things I’m embarrassed to have been sitting on since before the New Year” file comes this article about the fact that in the U.S., many people with disabilities are working jobs that pay below the already paltry minimum wage. And when I say “below,” I mean way below. What makes this most shocking to me isn’t the fact that people with disabilities are being exploited by unscrupulous employers — that much, I was aware of — but that it’s entirely legal under federal law.

The minimum wage might have been bumped up to $7.25 an hour in 2009, but that number means little to the over 300 workers with mental disabilities working at state-run homes for the people with disabilities in Iowa. That’s because they were making, on average, $0.60 per hour for their work. One employee was even making an average of a mere $0.11 per hour, a sweatshop-level wage in any country. Yet paying employees with mental disabilities piddling wages is legal in Iowa and the rest of the country. Should it be acceptable for companies and government to pay workers pennies an hour because of a mental disability?

The law under which Woodward and Glenwood, the two homes that are being looked at for providing very low wages, were able to pay so little is a controversial law meant to provide job opportunities for people with mental disabilities. The idea is that employers will have an incentive to hire people who might not be able to perform tasks at the same level as non-disabled employees because they can pay them less. However, this law has always been controversial among disability rights and labor rights advocates, and has been increasingly questioned since a Texas-based Turkey company was found to be exploiting and trafficking disabled workers.

It shoudn’t surprise us at all that those who think it’s totally cool for people to be working for $.11 an hour support their position by arguing that if employers aren’t allowed to pay sweat shop wages, jobs will be lost. Because that is the exact same argument that those who oppose any increase in the minimum wage use every single time topic comes up.

And if those of us who are progressive don’t accept that argument against a livable wage for able-bodied workers, we sure as hell shouldn’t be accepting it for those with disabilities, either. It’s certainly true that the unemployment rate among people with disabilities is significantly higher than among able-bodied people. But it’s also true that many other employment inequities exist. For example, blacks have a much higher unemployment rate than whites — in fact (while there is of course significant overlap between the two groups), black Americans in the workforce have an unemployment rate the same as Americans with disabilities in the workforce — and I think we know that the reason for that is discrimination of various kinds, not the minimum wage. And discrimination is never solved through further methods of discrimination, only compounded.

Which isn’t to say that ending the legal use of sweat shop level wages for people with disabilities would solve the problems of ableism, exploitation of workers, poverty, or unemployment/difficulty in finding work. It wouldn’t. Just like with the conversation about the minimum wage in general, it’s only a small start to a wider solution that involves creating a more equitable society overall, including for those workers (like undocumented workers) who aren’t recognized by the government in the first place. But when people are working for pennies per hour, with the full permission and approval of our government, it strikes me as a step that, while insufficient, is sorely needed.

h/t FWD/Forward

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20 comments for “Workers With Disabilities Frequently Paid Less Than Minimum Wage

  1. Sailorman
    January 19, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    That’s… completely out of line. PENNIES per hour? in the U.S.?

    I can see that there’s perhaps some legitimate argument for paying below the minimum wage, in theory. In Massachusetts, for example, our minimum wage is $10/hour. Perhaps there are a few, very limited, circumstances where it would be better to pay someone $6-9/hour if they need the job and otherwise would not qualify for some reason.

    But even then, (a) it would have to be a rarely justified occurrence, and (b) the total wages would still have to be reasonable in light of the circumstances.

  2. January 19, 2010 at 5:16 pm

    Good post, Cara.

  3. Kathleen
    January 19, 2010 at 8:28 pm

    I’m not defending 11 cent / hour jobs, but in our society the workplace isn’t just the place where you earn an income it’s also a huge part of where adults have a life. It’s easy to condemn programs that don’t pay (in particular) developmentally disabled adults the minimum wage, demand they be ¡¡¡¡¡ shut down !!!! and go home feeling great about a blow struck for human liberty.

    Except for the fact that then you’ve just shut down the place where many people go every day to hang out with a larger social group than exists in their family, or their group home, or what have you. And quite a few of those people actually cannot find good alternative employment — not because of discrimination, but because of the nature of their disabilities.

    Not working isn’t just an economic hardship — in modern life, it’s an incredible social hardship. It’s not like we have some kind of lively town square where people can just be around others; almost every one of our public spaces is privatized (shopping malls) or at least fee-for-entry (the YMCA).

    So, I think the answer is not to look at this and conclude it is simple economic exploitation, or to assume that what’s going on is the exact same thing that is going on with racial discrimination in the workplace.

    What those low, low wages tell us is how few real resources are going into inclusive programs for developmentally disabled adults. Which is indeed an outrage.

  4. bellareve
    January 19, 2010 at 8:57 pm

    Kathleen – who exactly is demanding that the programs be shut down?

    It IS exploitation and discrimination, and the demand is simply to PAY PWD EQUAL WAGES. Not to take away anyone’s social support and community. Like everyone else, PWD deserve a social life/network AND a decent living wage, if you can believe it!

  5. January 19, 2010 at 9:11 pm

    As low as 11 cents an hour? It’s almost unbelievable, but I’m slowly learning not to put anything beneath America.

    @ Kathleen: no one’s asking to end jobs for disabled people. I think the argument is that they not be discriminated against for being disabled. This isn’t zero sum: the people in question could enjoy the social contact of their work AND not experience pay discrimination. We can have BOTH!

  6. Julie
    January 19, 2010 at 11:01 pm

    It’s disgusting. I used to work at a residential home for adults with disabilities and they would go to work all day, come home exhausted and covered in grease (it’s a factory setting) and bring home a whopping 20.00 a week. They justify it by paying them by each completed project rather than by a wage but it used to make me so mad every time one of them came home with a paycheck. One of the guys refused to cash his check one day because it was only for a 1.00 after the bus fee (they have to pay for their transportation to and from work) because he suffers from debilitating headaches and had only been able to work one day. It’s beyond frustrating and I don’t understand how it’s legal.

  7. January 19, 2010 at 11:25 pm

    It’s easy to condemn programs that don’t pay (in particular) developmentally disabled adults the minimum wage, demand they be ¡¡¡¡¡ shut down !!!! and go home feeling great about a blow struck for human liberty.

    I don’t know how you made the amazing leap of logic from ‘PWD should be paid what they’re worth’ to ‘shut down the companies’. But that aside, given that the unemployment rate for PWD is anywhere from 13%-70%, I think your claim that the workplace is vital source of social support and networking for them is tenuous at best. It never was for me, anyway. When I was working a full eight hour day (against my doctor’s advice), I had to put all my energy into keeping my head above water and trying seem as competent as my co-workers. That plus only two ten minute breaks and a half-hour lunch break means there wasn’t much time for small talk during the working day. And by the end I was just too exhausted to do anything else – including socializing. I’ve formed most of my lasting friendships through school, recovery, support groups, as well as a few I developed with people online. And I suspect that my experience is, while maybe not the norm, quite common for other PWD.

  8. Cactus Wren
    January 20, 2010 at 12:39 am

    The National Federation of the Blind ( has a number of excellent articles on the history of the sheltered-workshop system and how it has impacted the employment experiences of blind workers. (In 1960 the National Labor Relations Board ruled that blind workers in state-owned sheltered workshops were not to be considered “employees” for collective-bargaining purposes and thus had no right to form a union.)

  9. piny
    January 20, 2010 at 8:27 am

    Kathleen, (what everyone else said but also) that social benefit is also tainted by exploitation.

    These people are interacting with a workplace that treats them and their work as virtually worthless–even when it’s happy to trade on its real market value in the most cynical fashion. No one should have to choose between exploitation and isolation; that dilemma is itself a powerful negative message. Segregation never bends a society towards equality; usually the opposite.

    It doesn’t just affect the individual worker or workplace, either. As more employers offer nil wages as a privilege, fewer employers will feel obliged to provide real compensation–or real opportunity. Fewer TABs will realize that employment is valuable and possible. PWD have the right to seek out and compete for meaningful employment. This arrangement perpetuates the ableist assumption that PWD can contribute nothing valuable–that their jobs benefit only them. Occupational therapy, as it were.

    I’m not in favor of the institutional gulag, either, but I don’t think this is that much of an improvement. And I think that employers who profit from the assumption that PWD labor is worthless are reprehensible.

  10. Marle
    January 20, 2010 at 11:26 am

    It’s complicated.

    My best friend’s brother is severely mentally disabled. For a short time, he “worked” for a company packing boxes. He couldn’t work very hard or very fast, he wasn’t exploited, and it was basically like he was working so he could be babysat. His supervisors were trained to work with people with severe disabilities, and he was working with other people like him. It was something for him to do to keep him in a routine after he was no longer able to go to school. Unfortunately his condition has deteriorated, and he’s now living in an institution.

    There are all different types and levels of disabilities. This sounds horrible, and I’m sure that some companies abuse it, but it’s not terrible for everyone. My friend’s brother couldn’t do a job he could get paid minimum wage for. But it was great that at the time he was able to do something. Maybe it would be better to expand education so he could go to school past 21, or maybe have a universal child care program that would accept adults with mental disabilities. Sadly, we don’t have those right now. But the situation is a lot more complicated than it looks.

  11. Ursula L
    January 20, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    Having spent many years working in group homes for developmentally disabled adults, I did know a few people who were working under these rules.

    It is much like Marle explains. This type of work is done in a supervised workshop, as part of a larger habilitation program.

    A typical task might be like this – a store has some soap, and wants to sell it in two-packs. But the factory sends the soap individually wrapped. So the soap gets sent to the workshop, and the workers will count out two bars of soap, and wrap them together with plastic wrap. And it may take one of them five minutes or more to wrap those two bars of soap together. And this work may be mixed with other activities, such as speech therapy, physical therapy, and other vocational training.

    Another issue is that the people doing this type of work are often severely disabled, living either in a group home setting or with their parents/families as adults, and unable to fully care for themselves and live on their own. Often their care is paid for by Medicaid or other government programs. This is a lot of government aide, for their housing, staff to supervise the housing, their food, their clothing, their transportation needs, their medical expenses, and some spending money. And if they earn too much money, they can loose those benefits.

    In these programs, while they may not earn much money, they also are not expected to use that money to help pay for their rent, food, medication, therapies, etc. The spending/living money they receive from the state is not cut by the amount they earn. When the state authorizes these programs, the “pay” is a small fraction of what the participants actually receive as resources for living.

    These programs are a way for them to do productive work, at the level which they can work, while acknowledging that their work abilities aren’t sufficient to be self-supporting, and not interfering with the services they do need.

    A lot of these types of programs are unpaid, as well. There are many programs that focus on volunteer work, where the workers may do things like going to the public library, being given a spray bottle of cleaner and some paper towels, and wiping down the tables, or being driven around by staff to help deliver meals-on-wheels.

    Other programs are pre-vocational, working on training for tasks that might hypothetically lead to work in the future, such as sorting things by color, or basic counting (sort into groups of two, or of three, etc.) or communication skills, etc.

    These programs aren’t exploitation. They are one aspect of a large system of programs dedicating to helping people with developmental disabilities, and in their context, the (small amount of) cash pay that these workers receive is only a tiny proportion of the resources they are given to support themselves.

  12. Ursula L
    January 20, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    Just to be clear, I’m not saying that these programs can’t be exploited.

    Rather, I’m saying that they are a valuable part of a system that provides care for people with developmental disabilities who could not otherwise care for or support themselves, and they need to be looked at in that context.

    The key is to single out organizations that are not meeting the requirements for the program, such as by employing people who are capable of supporting themselves or working in a non-supervised environment (supervision appropriate to developmental disability, not supervision in the normal workplace sense), or providing substandard housing, food or medical care, or taking the earned (low) wages as rent or food payment.

    If the first time you are exposed to this concept is when a bad situation is made public, the concept itself sounds horrible. But when you’ve seen the programs working the way they should, and you know the people doing this work and how they feel about it, and what they’d be doing if this wasn’t available, it looks quite different.

  13. Taylor Serenil
    January 20, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    I am disabled (bipolar, seizure disorder) and receive a government check as a result.

    One of the options that I’ve been trying to avoid is doing exactly what this article talks about. There is a program where I live that hooks disabled people up with jobs and then pays them little enough that they can keep their disability benefits. I am not saying this is absolutely bad, but if I’m putting in a full work week, I want to get paid like it. As a result, I’m trying to get a standard job, although right now I’m part of that huge percentage of unemployed disabled people.

  14. Ursula L
    January 20, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    Taylor Serenil has a good point.

    The laws which allow these workshops were designed for people like the ones I worked with in the group homes, who could not hold an ordinary job.

    But they’ve been used to help people with all sorts of disabilities, including those who could hold an ordinary job, but who could not make enough money in that job to cover their needs, even though it would be enough money to loose them their benefits.

    I can’t say that it is wrong to use the law in that way, in the absence of reforms that would let someone hold a reasonably well-paying job without loosing benefits that they need but could not afford.

    I suspect that is where the greatest room for abuse of the law is, hiring people who can do an ordinary job, but still need benefits to cover needs beyond ordinary expenses. Someone who takes ten minutes to count two bars of soap and wrap them up isn’t competitive on the job market. But other people are competitive, skills-wise, while needing vocational support in other ways.

  15. piny
    January 21, 2010 at 5:39 am

    Ursula, I understand the principle–and I know that workers with disabilities are often caught between punitive disability assistance/care structures and their need to survive and interact with the outside world.

    But I think the problem is not so much with what the law covers as what it defines. It seems like the abuses are occurring not because employers are shorting workers to make money, but because workers with disabilities are being defined as an inferior class. That is, that a worker with a disability is by definition incapable of doing equal work–at any job. I think that’s the reasoning behind the union ruling, although I understand that it’s not the intent of the law. And that’s what troubles me.

  16. Ursula L
    January 21, 2010 at 10:25 pm

    Piny, I see what you’re saying, but my point is more that there are some types of disabilities for which this is appropriate.

    Saying disabled workers are “second class” is problematic. But I’m not sure how you’d describe the work done by someone who takes ten minutes to count and wrap two bars of soap, or who goes to the animal shelter and shreds paper by hand to line rabbit cages (she loves tearing paper, and it takes all of her attention and ability), or who is learning to take a bag of beads in two colors, and separate the colors.

    A problem I see fairly frequently is that people with disabilities that aren’t intellectual are chosen to speak for “the disabled” in general, and, as in this case, policies that are beneficial for people with the more severe forms of intellectual disability are both applied to people with other sorts of disabilities and interpreted as if applied to people with other types of disabilities.

    You say:

    It seems like the abuses are occurring not because employers are shorting workers to make money, but because workers with disabilities are being defined as an inferior class.

    “Inferior class” is a harsh term, but I’m not sure that there is a way to describe a worker who is pushed to the limit of their skills tearing up a newspaper that doesn’t, in some way, seem “inferior” in labor skills.

    And trying to force “tears up paper by hand” into a job that pays a full minimum wage will just lead to the animal shelter going to an office store and buying a mechanical shredder, rather than paying someone to do in two weeks by hand what could otherwise be done in an hour with a $50 machine.

    Marle described her friend’s brother’s work as “it was basically like he was working so he could be babysat” or as needing “a universal child care program that would accept adults with mental disabilities.” Some people need that.

    Providing that service in a way that is called “work” and that focuses on using the skills they have in a way that is helpful to society adds dignity and pride for people who have that level of need.

    Trying to make that service function, in society, as actual work would render it useless for the people who need it.

  17. January 21, 2010 at 10:40 pm

    As opposed to having people without any disabilities speak for people with intellectual abilities? That’s supposed to be better?

    Or we could look to what people with intellectual disabilities themselves are actually saying. And yes, there are a fair number of them involved in disability advocacy.

  18. Ursula L
    January 21, 2010 at 11:51 pm

    As opposed to having people without any disabilities speak for people with intellectual abilities? That’s supposed to be better?

    Or we could look to what people with intellectual disabilities themselves are actually saying. And yes, there are a fair number of them involved in disability advocacy.

    Some are speaking for themselves. But they tend to be in the range of mild intellectual disabilities. And not necessarily familiar with people who have severe intellectual disabilities.

    At a certain point, intellectual disabilities start to limit or prevent effective self-advocacy. If you’re struggling to achieve communication that involves “point to the picture of a cup if you are thirsty, point to a picture of a plate of food if you are hungry”, or would happily shred paper money along with the newspapers you tear up because you don’t know one from another, effective self-advocacy will be limited.

    At that point, the best people to speak for people with that level of disability are those who know them personally.

    Generally, this is family members and people who have made a career of of working with this population, and who have also worked with the individual in question for a long time so as to understand their individual needs.

    The needs of people with more extreme intellectual disabilities don’t track well with the needs of people whose intellectual level allows them to speak for themselves. In some ways, it is similar to the issue of who speaks for the rights and needs of very young children (pre-verbal, limited speech), but that doesn’t track perfectly to their needs, either.

    Having someone who understands the value of money and is capable of holding a job on the open market (if they weren’t facing prejudice and loss of benefits necessary for their life) and who is vulnerable to being taken advantage of in this sort of program, speak for people who thrive in this sort of program, is a conflict of interest.

    Having a disability doesn’t mean that you know the needs of people with every sort of disability. It doesn’t mean that you care about the needs of people with other sort of disabilities. It doesn’t mean that a program that you advocate for as being perfect for addressing your needs will be appropriate for someone with a different disability and different needs. It doesn’t mean that a program that is perfect for someone else won’t be horrible abuse and exploitation if it is applied to you.

    If someone is capable of self-advocacy and speaking for their own needs, then they are the person who is best able to speak for their needs. If someone is not capable of effective self-advocacy on a particular issue, their best advocate is someone who knows them well as an individual, not someone who doesn’t know them individually but happens to be disabled. And their advocate needs to (must!) only speak to the things that they are unable to speak to on their own – if they can point to a picture of a cup to say they are thirsty, then no one else should be deciding when they should drink.

  19. piny
    January 22, 2010 at 1:29 am

    Piny, I see what you’re saying, but my point is more that there are some types of disabilities for which this is appropriate.

    Yes, and my point is that this is not a “some” situation, but a standard that is being applied across the board, as if disabled = inferior. I understand that there are workers whose capacity makes them less profitable or unprofitable as employees–beyond any equal-access issue. I also know that there are workers who are prevented from working because of ableism–and that there are other workers who are exploited with impunity because of ableism. And I think that most of the commenters here are bothered for similar reasons. A sensible rationale for protection is being warped into exploitation by unexamined prejudice and unmitigated inequality.

  20. Ursula L
    January 23, 2010 at 10:30 am

    Yes, and my point is that this is not a “some” situation, but a standard that is being applied across the board, as if disabled = inferior.

    This is not applied across the board, however.

    No one can just hire someone who is disabled, and declare that since the person is disabled, they will pay less than the legal minimum wage.

    These are specifically licensed programs, supervised by trained staff, and run by agencies dedicated to helping people with specific sorts of disabilities. Sometimes it is an agency that also runs residential programs, sometimes it is an agency that only provides day programs. If it is an agency that provides residential programs, the work programs are generally not limited to people living in their residential programs, but also available to qualified people in other agencies residential programs or living in the community.

    If someone is in this sort of work program, they aren’t just put to work – the work program is one aspect of a larger habilitation/vocational program.

    The programs are also generally nonprofit – when you calculate the costs of supervising staff and other services provided, even with the token wages paid to the enrolled workers, the “business” part of the program does not support the cost of running it.

    For the programs that go wrong, looking at it from the perspective of paying sub-minimum wages misses where the abuse is probably happening – in insufficient supervision, not providing required services, housing that does not meet the specific codes the state has for group homes, embezzlement of state funds intended to care for the workers and run the program for the worker’s benefit, etc. That’s where the money is, and where the room for abuse is on the institutional side.

    On the individual side, the room for abuse is people who might be overqualified for this type of work, but not able to hold a job that will cover their living expenses, being fudged into this type of program a the best fit of various bad options. That is the same category of choice as someone who turns down a raise because it would mean loosing benefits that pay for daycare for their children, a rational decision when the benefits are worth more than the pay. But the problem there is not that the program is being applied “across the board” but a gap in the structure of the overall social welfare system.

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