Labor laws allow workers with disabilities to earn less than minimum wage

May 28, 2013

There’s currently proposed legislation for a higher minimum wage at both the state and federal level. But some of the fastest growing fields, like homecare and restaurant workers, aren’t included in the minimum wage. WBEZ’s Front and Center series, Exceptions to the Rule, introduces you to people who aren’t protected by the same labor laws as everyone else.

When I meet Michael Grice, he’s sharply dressed in a turquoise pinstripe shirt and nice beige slacks. He says people are quick to judge him because he has Cerebral Palsy and uses a wheelchair, so he pays special attention to his appearance.

A few years ago, Grice moved into supportive housing at Ada S McKinley. The agency provided him with a job doing piece work in one of their workshops.  Grice remembers filling bubble gum machines and packing boxes. He hated the repetition of the work. He had previously done marketing at a University Gym and worked as a customer service representative at a bank.

But even worse, were the wages. Ada S. McKinley has a special license called a 14c, which allows them to pay workers with disabilities below the minimum wage. The license was originally written into the Fair Labor Act of 1938. The agency said it allowed them to hire people for jobs they otherwise might not get because of their disabilities.

Under the license worker's wage is calculated based on their individual ability.

For Grice, it was less than a dollar an hour.

“To buy the essential things was impossible," Grice said. "To buy clothes, to get a haircut, to buy hygiene products. It was just impossible to do.” 

Grice’s pride in his appearance was compromised. He also couldn’t afford to go to movies, or out to dinner, so he was rarely out in public.  He says that made him feel isolated and the wages made him feel unworthy.

“I was embarrassed to cash a check that was $5.40 for 2 weeks," Grice said. "I didn’t even bother to cash my check. It was, believe me, very degrading.” 

Grice’s wages aren’t that unique for workers with disabilities. According to the National Core Indicators, the majority of people in Illinois facility-based jobs (jobs in workshops separated from the general public) earned less than $2.50 an hour. Less than 10 percent earned at least the Federal Minimum wage.

Still, the licensed agencies say they are doing important work.

Envision Unlimited serves people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

Susan Gardner is its Division Director of Day and Employment Services.

In their offices, people played card games, or relaxed in an area with quiet music and lowlights. In another area, a young man showed me his paintings of caves and another displayed a carpet he was weaving. Both will be able to sell their artwork through Envision, for a portion of the profits.

The actual workshop has cutting tables and big industrial looms. This is where people work the hourly jobs.

The organization gets contracts from for-profit organizations to make tablecloths and napkins. But Gardner stresses that Envision is a non-profit and says all the money they bring in from the contracts goes directly to materials or workers wages.

“If we weren’t allowed to pay subminimum wages and then those people would not be able to earn a check,” Gardner said. “And you can see they are invested in what they are doing, they are taking a lot of pride. And it’s preparing them to take those jobs into the community and really be a functioning part of the community and the work world out there.”

Envision says that about 60 people they employ now have regular jobs. Including two women who have worked at Shedd Aquarium for over 30 years.

But work placement rates like Envision’s are rare. 95 percent of people with these sub-minimum wage jobs never go on to get regular work. Illinois is particularly weak. It ranks 44th in terms of placing people with disabilities in regular jobs. And over a hundred organizations in Illinois hold the 14c license that allows them to pay subminimum wages.

While many organizations continue to pay workers subminimum wages under 14c licenses, concerned that there are no alternatives, other disability organizations, such as the National Federation of the Blind and The Organization for the Severely Handicap (TASH)  have picked up subminimum wages as a civil rights issue.

Advocates have been especially critical of larger organizations like Goodwill, where executive directors earn huge salaries and have multimillion dollar budgets, while workers make very little. Beyond wages, advocates say that segregating workers into special workshops, goes against the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Rene Luna organizes with Disabled Americans Want Work Now (DAWWN) and is an advocate with Access Living.

“It doesn’t help our perceptions of disability,” Luna said.

A few bills have tried to eliminate the subminimum wage, but never successfully. And this current round of minimum wage conversations doesn’t seem like it will end it either.

In order to change things, Luna says we have to think about work differently.  

“We have to not think about a job description and trying to fit a disabled person into that description, but consider reasonable accommodations,” Luna said.

Grice for example, was put in a job that required him to assemble materials, even though his disability meant he lacked hand dexterity.  One day, about 5 months into his job, he looked down at his work, frustrated with how slowly it was moving.

“I just said to myself I can’t do this anymore, I can't do this.”

Grice asked his social worker to take him out of the program and help him find a job in marketing or outreach, like he had before at the gym and bank.

“Her response was, ‘we are doing the best we can do. Just go along for now and we will try our best,’” Grice said.

But Grice didn’t want to just wait. Many other people in workshops are afraid to speak up or leave, explained Grice. Keep in mind these organizations sometimes also provide housing, transportation and other services.

Grice felt like if he was able, it was his responsibility to take a stand. So he’s left it all behind. He now organizes with DAWWN, lives in a nursing home and is looking for a job.

Shannon Heffernan is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @shannon_h