Seattle announced a proposal on Wednesday that will eliminate special certificates allowing companies to pay beneath the $15 minimum wage. These certificates, used to hire people with disabilities, will be voted on before the end of the year.
City council woman Lisa Herbold said that subminimum wages “inherently devalue the employee receiving them.”
Since 1938, people with disabilities have voluntarily worked in sheltered workshops, alongside others with disabilities, and in companies where they are paid according to productivity (usually below the minimum wage).
But revoking subminimum wages would make those with disabilities unemployable rather than help them.
The city council implies all workers earning subminimum wage will also be employed at the minimum wage, and that none will fall between the $10-15 wage gap between past pay and supposed future pay.
This was not the case in Maine.
Maine phased out sheltered workshops in 2008. Two out of three workers did not find another paid position, according to a 2015 study by George Washington University. Meanwhile, enrollment in daycare and similar programs jumped from 550 to 3,178.
So, instead of going to work every day, people with disabilities are sitting in daycare, which is “inherently devaluing” to them and costly for their families.
66 percent of these Maine employees were not hired at a minimum wage of $7.25. How many Seattle employees will be hired when the minimum wage is $15 an hour?
The Fair Labor Standards Act explains the reason for the lower wage exemption: to protect their employment.
“Employment at less than the minimum wage is authorized to prevent curtailment of opportunities for employment. “
Implementing a higher minimum wage forces many out of work. The higher the wage, the more unemployed workers there will be. The FLSA created the exemption to protect those most vulnerable from losing their jobs.
The National Federation of the Blind’s argument to end the exemption proves their own workers would suffer. “Data shows that less than five percent of the four-hundred thousand workers with disabilities in segregated subminimum wage workshops will transition into competitive integrated work. Moreover, research shows that the subminimum wage model costs more but actually produces less!”
In short, workers being paid less than minimum wage are less unproductive, and few move to better-paying work. Then how are these workers expected to compete for jobs against able-bodied people?
Only 18 percent of people with disabilities were employed in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 34 percent of people with disabilities were employed part-time.
Eliminating this exemption will throw those with disabilities out of work.
Being paid according to productivity does not devalue workers–being priced out of the market does.
Subminimum wage jobs give workers with disabilities a chance to make some money (combined with government and family assistance), valuable friendships, and be given a purpose.
People with disabilities deserve the opportunity to work. Forcing businesses to hire only those capable of producing $15 of labor per hour will push those with disabilities out of work.