This July, the House of Representatives is planning to vote on a bill to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2024. Most of the media coverage has highlighted the groundswell of progressive support behind the increase — a $15 minimum wage was considered a pipe dream only a few years ago, and now the bill is co-sponsored by a majority of congressional Democrats. But an equally monumental — and largely overlooked — story behind the bill is what it would mean for the 1 in 5 Americans living with a disability.
A loophole in the current minimum wage law allows employers to pay workers with disabilities a subminimum wage that’s even lower than the federal limit of $7.25 — in some cases, paying people as little as pennies per hour. In recent years, an estimated 420,000 individuals with disabilities have been paid an average of just $2.15 per hour.
The new bill would sunset the separate subminimum wage, immediately setting it at $4.25 and then gradually increasing it every year for the next six years until it is even with the minimum wage.
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Disability advocates have been pushing for this type of legislation for years. The subminimum wage was initially introduced in 1938 to encourage employers to hire veterans with disabilities — and has barely budged in the nearly 80 years since. Now, the Depression-era policy does far more harm than good. Partly as a result of these extremely low wages, workers with disabilities are nearly twice as likely to be economically insecure as workers without disabilities.
While some advocates argue that the subminimum wage offers workers a foot in the door of the labor market — paving the way to skill development, training, and an upward career trajectory — research shows that it exposes workers with disabilities to exploitation and seclusion. In 2016, phasing out the separate subminimum wage was a key recommendation of the Department of Labor’s advisory committee on employment among individuals with disabilities.
In its current form, the subminimum wage pigeon-holes workers into dead-end jobs — most often at sheltered workshops, where workers with disabilities are kept separate from other workers. It’s stigmatizing, sending the message that disabled individuals’ work is not as valuable as other individuals’ work. And it’s discriminatory, robbing workers with disabilities of the basic labor protections afforded to workers without disabilities and leaving them vulnerable to mistreatment and abuse. Senator Casey and others have introduced the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act, which would include a graduated phase out of these programs over six years and financial incentives to support current programs to move to a model of integrated employment at competitive wages. However, the Raise the Wage Act is notable for finally treating these workers as a key part of the workforce from the outset.
Congressional Democrats’ embrace of one fair minimum wage taps into a growing — but so far, largely frustrated — movement. President Obama attempted to partially rectify the law by including workers with disabilities in his 2014 executive order mandating a minimum wage of $10.10 for federal contractors, which President Trump has threatened to reverse. At least six states, New Hampshire, Alaska, Maryland, Washington, Oregon, and Vermont have independently passed legislation to phase out the subminimum wage for workers with disabilities. Other subminimum wages, like the one that exists for tipped workers, have been able to make more progress. Eight states ban the tipped minimum wage, and all national minimum wage bills introduced since 2012 have included provisions to partially or fully phase it out.
For the 40 million workers who struggle to make ends meet on low wages, the Raise the Wage Act is an historic step towards ensuring a livable wage for all. This call is especially significant for the millions of workers with disabilities who — after 80 years of being left without a voice in federal legislation — are finally able to join the chorus, demanding the fair shot at fair pay that all workers deserve.
Editor’s note: This piece was originally published on May 18, 2017. It has since been updated