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Subminimum wages allow employers to pay disabled workers less than $7.25 an hour

Cover for the book Twenty-two Cents an Hour: Disability Right and the Fight to End Subminimum Wages by Doug Crandell. The title and author are written out between rows of pennies on a plain white background.
David Baldeosingh Rotstein
Cornell University Press

Controversy about the federal minimum wage has been happening since its inception, but for certain disabled workers, it's a struggle to even reach that bottom line of $7.25 an hour.

Utah State University hosted a Zoom event mid-October about a disability advocate’s new book addressing wage rights for disabled workers.

The book, "Twenty-Two Cents an Hour: Disability Rights and the Fight to End Subminimum Wage," discusses the history, present and hopeful future of subminimum wages, which is when companies are allowed to pay below minimum wage to disabled workers if they have a 14(c) certificate under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The author of the book, Doug Crandell, believes subminimum wages in practice are discriminatory and exploit disabled workers for cheap labor.

“There's no evidence base behind the practice,” Crandell said. “There's tons of exploitation and segregation and misuse and no oversight.”

Pay under subminimum wage can fall far below $7.25, as low as a couple dimes an hour. Workers are also kept by 14(c) certificate holders for years, even decades, in what are often sub-standard conditions.

Perhaps the most famous example of this is Henry’s Turkey Service in Atalissa, Iowa, where 30 men with intellectual disabilities were human trafficked from Texas to Iowa to work in slaughtering turkeys. They worked there for the next 30 years before it closed. When men tried to run away, they were brought back and chained to beds.

So why are subminimum wages still allowed, and why is the problem not more well-known? Crandell says it’s because we assume these companies must have good intentions simply because they work with disability.

“Most Americans, when they see very recognizable disability entities, they tend to assume that good work's being done, right?” Crandell said. “I call it the facade of benevolence.”

Crandell says an even bigger problem, however, is low expectations of what disabled people are capable of and the public’s assumption that there’s no other option for them.

“People will often say, 'Well, if there isn't any subminimum wages, and there are not any sheltered workshops, where people are going to work?'” Crandell said. “They're going to work in the community like everybody else. Our public policies have to change.”

One of those public policies is HR 2373, a Congressional bill that would phase out subminimum wages. Crandell feels confident this will pass, but he says there’s much more to do if we want truly equal opportunities for disabled people in the workplace.

“It's only that first step,” Crandel said. “There are many things that we need to do around policy to make it easier for people to work in their communities.”

Some of the solutions Crandell offered were state-specific tax incentives for business that hire people who’ve previously worked for subminimum wages and paying coworkers to teach disabled workers a job rather than job coaches. He also mentioned “state as a model employer,” which is where all state agencies work together to set goals for disabled workers, including accommodation and creating job descriptions.

The webinar was put on by USU’s Institute of Disability Research, Policy & Practice and the Utah chapter of the Association of People Supporting Employment First. October was also National Disability Employment Awareness Month, with this year’s theme being Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Plus Disability.

Duck is a general reporter and weekend announcer at UPR, and is studying broadcast journalism and disability studies at USU. They grew up in northern Colorado before moving to Logan in 2018, so the Rocky Mountain life is all they know. Free time is generally spent with their dog, Monty, listening to podcasts, reading or wishing they could be outside more.