Disabled workers and minimum wage

With a major focus on jobs in President Barack Obama’s second term, people with disabilities worry that they will be left behind. Although the president mentioned the word “jobs” numerous times in his 2014 State of the Union speech and announced he would sign an executive order to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour for workers employed on federal contracts, one group not automatically included in this increase are workers with disabilities who are paid through a federal program.

In a conference call with advocacy organizations soon after the speech, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez said that Obama’s executive order will not apply to federal contractors for a program known as 14(c), in which workers with disabilities are paid subminimum wages, most often in sites known as “sheltered workshops” under the guise of providing training programs. According to the National Council on Disability, there are approximately 420,000 persons with disabilities in the 14(c) programs around the country. An article in Forbes gives examples of special needs individuals earning just $3.99 per hour at Goodwill Industries and $3.99 to $5.96 per hour at Applebee’s, for example.

The federal law permitting the subminimum wage dates back to the 1930s, when it was seen as a form of charity and then later used to justify indefinite training that almost never transitioned employees with disabilities into any other type of employment.  Goodwill Industries is probably the best known of these programs, employing thousands of adults who are blind, deaf or have other types of serious disabilities around the country and here in Southern California. A petition started this summer on Change.org calls on the public to stop donating used goods to Goodwill or shopping at their stores until Goodwill agrees to increase all of its workers to minimum wage. To date, that petition has gathered more than 171,300 signatures.

As necessary as it is to make the minimum wage the law of the land for everyone, any change involves complex issues that need to be addressed, such as: Will mandating the minimum wage for workers with disabilities have the unintended consequence of even fewer adults with disabilities getting hired? What about older adults with disabilities who have spent their entire lives in sheltered workshops and have developed good friendships with co-workers and employers over the years? And what about the even bigger issue that people with disabilities who receive Social Security Income (SSI) aren’t permitted to have more than $2,000 in the bank at any one time? (There’s a separate bill in Congress called the ABLE Act Achieving a Better Life Experience Act — that would allow people on SSI to save money through 529-like accounts that wouldn’t impact their medical care and disability benefits.)

It turns out that the minimum-wage issue may be addressed after all as part of Obama’s executive order. In a recent interview on a TV news show, Labor Secretary Perez said that “we’re actively looking at what our legal authorities are and what our abilities are,” reflecting a policy shift after a coalition of 25 disability groups signed an open letter protesting the continuation of the subminimum wage.

While we wait for the federal government to make these necessary changes, there’s plenty that we all can do get more people with disabilities working. One great example is the Ruderman Family Foundation Opportunity Initiative, a collaborative program with the umbrella national organization Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), to promote inclusion in the workplace for young adults with disabilities. Fittingly launched as Jewish Disability Awareness Month, which started this month, this project will help Federations and other Jewish organizations to truly “walk the walk” when it comes to hiring people with disabilities.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles was selected as one of five Federations to participate in the 2014 pilot project, and they are offering three part-time paid internships of 14 to 16 weeks’ duration over the course of this year. The Ruderman/JFNA press release states that each intern will “receive appropriate supervision and mentorship, and will provide a meaningful contribution to Federation’s business needs.” The initial opportunity in Los Angeles is for an Internet developer position in the IT department, who will help develop reports for a new donor management system.

Other Federations that are part of this pilot project are The Associated in Baltimore, Greater MetroWest NJ, Minneapolis and UJA-Federation of New York. The Washington, D.C., office of JFNA will also be participating.

This type of collaborative voluntary action is a game changer; paid internships are exactly what is needed to shift attitudes, provide true inclusion and give adults with disabilities a real alternative to living on SSI for the rest of their lives.

Michelle K. Wolf writes a monthly column for the Jewish Journal. Visit her Jews and Special Needs blog at jewishjournal.com/jews_and_special_needs.