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.
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