Obama’s welcome first step for workers with disabillities

McClatchy-TribuneFebruary 21, 2014 

Mike Ervin


President Obama’s executive order raising the minimum wage of employees of federal contractors to $10.10 per hour is a great victory for thousands of workers with disabilities.

Appallingly, workers with disabilities can sometimes be paid far less than the minimum wage.

Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act allows employers to petition the U.S. Department of Labor for permission to pay certain disabled workers less than minimum wage. The employer must do a calculation to make the case that the disabled worker is supposedly less productive than a nondisabled person performing the same job and thus should be paid less.

An estimated 216,000 disabled workers are paid less than minimum wage under this provision. There is no limit to how little these workers can be paid and some make less than $1 per hour.

Disability rights activists have tried unsuccessfully for years to convince Congress to repeal the provision. So shortly after Obama announced in the State of Union address that he would issue the executiveorder, 25 disability rights organizations — including the National Down Syndrome Congress and the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network — sent a letter to the president urging him to make sure all federal contract workers with disabilities are covered by the order.

“We believe that all Americans should be afforded minimum wage protections, including those workers with disabilities,” the letter said.

When Obama issued the order, he said, “It will cover Americans with disabilities. This doesn’t just apply to some of us; it applies to all of us.” Obama deserves accolades for this major step forward. But tens of thousands of people with disabilities working for employers not covered by the order will still be paid less than minimum wage. Justice will not be served until Congress repeals Section 14(c) and makes sure that the minimum wage applies to all of us.

Mike Ervin is a disability-rights activist. He wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues.

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