Demand Better for Workers with Disabilities

Dusting offices, wiping down tables, cleaning bathrooms, sorting, collating, labeling, folding, mailing— these are all activities that thousands of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) do for as little as three or four dollars an hour today in the United States of America. This reality is sanctioned and administered by the federal government. Eighty-five years after the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), there is nothing fair about the subminimum wages we pay people with disabilities for their labor. 

Eighty-five years after the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), there is nothing fair about the subminimum wages we pay people with disabilities for their labor.

The stated goal of the FLSA is to correct labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and general well-being of workers. While this declaration of policy is a noble and necessary one, the law’s protections do not extend fully to people with disabilities. Under Section 14(c) of the FLSA, employers can obtain a certificate to legally pay people with disabilities below the federal minimum wage. This policy was enshrined in the FLSA as a way to ensure that people with disabilities were not left out of the labor market given, as stated in the statute, that their “earning or productive capacity is impaired by age, physical or mental deficiency, or injury.”

With the stroke of a pen, the very law meant to protect and enhance the lives of workers intentionally excluded certain workers with disabilities predicated on the idea that their labor was worth less than the labor of their nondisabled peers. Unfortunately, more than eight decades later and 33 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which established economic self-sufficiency for people with disabilities as a national goal, the minimum labor standards established by the FLSA are legally circumvented when it comes to people with disabilities.

Kyle Stumpf, a man with Down syndrome who lives and works in Dubuque, Iowa, previously worked under a 14(c) certificate earning subminimum wages. Kyle’s employment journey began toward the end of his transition from high school. He visited a few employment options that he was told were available to him. Both options were sheltered workshops for people with disabilities where he would be paid subminimum wages. Kyle does not recall being shown any employment options in the community that were integrated, like grocery stores or fast-food restaurants. Kyle eventually ended up working at a sheltered workshop helping people unload donations from cars, sorting clothing, and placing items in good condition on a conveyor belt. While his work duties ultimately broadened to include cleaning the restroom and break room and moving items to the attached retail store, his pay remained around $3.50 an hour for the roughly five years he was employed at the sheltered workshop. Kyle recalls being treated well and liked the people he worked with, which included some people (all with disabilities) he went to school with.

Kyle transitioned to working alongside nondisabled peers in an integrated setting, earning above minimum wage after gaining experience by working a few hours at a bar alongside his sister, which then helped him land a job at a national pizza chain where he worked with the assistance of job coaches. Today, Kyle works at the pizza restaurant three days per week and is sometimes called on more often. Working and making more money has allowed him to save money in a tax-advantaged savings account for people with disabilities called an ABLE (Achieving Better Life Experiences) account and to save for the future.

Kyle is just one example of what can be achieved when we reject antiquated and discriminatory systems and instead demand better for workers with disabilities. Millions of people with disabilities are in the labor market today, working alongside their nondisabled colleagues and being paid at least minimum wage. While more progress is needed, today we have developed the expertise needed to support individuals with all kinds of disabilities, including the most significant disabilities, to succeed in competitive, integrated work.

Policymakers, service providers, parents, extended families, friends, and our communities must listen to workers with disabilities who want and deserve more than exemptions under laws meant to protect them. On the 85th anniversary of the FLSA, we must hold two competing thoughts in our minds. While the FLSA has undoubtedly protected workers over the last 85 years, it will never truly live up to its stated goal as long as Section 14(c) remains intact. We must correct this, lest we go another 85 years with subminimum wages for people with disabilities.

Kyle Stumpf is a worker in Iowa; he was assisted by Bill Stumpf in producing this essay. Cyrus Huncharek is director of policy and advocacy with the National Down Syndrome Congress.

Read essays from workers and advocates whose direct experience with the FLSA’s shortcomings offers a starting point for discussion and action to change it:

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About the Authors

Kyle Stumpf

Worker, Iowa

Cyrus Huncharek

Director of Policy and Advocacy, National Down Syndrome Congress

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