A new bill could boost pay for the disabled–to at least the minimum wage

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(This post originally appeared on The Washington Post)

Did you know that if you are an employer you are allowed, by federal minimum wage law, to pay your disabled workers less than minimum wage? You can. But a new bill may change that.

The bill, called Raise the Wage Act, is sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and Reps. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and aims to increase the federal minimum wage from its current $7.25 per hour to $15.00 per hour nationally by 2024. However, the bill would also mean the elimination of a long-standing provision that would allow employers to pay a “sub-minimum” wage to workers in service industries (like restaurants), jobs filled by teenagers…and the disabled.

There is almost no chance this bill will pass under the current GOP-controlled Congress. But the proposed act has brought the practice of paying sub-minimum wages under new scrutiny.

Many are concerned that the current provision allows employers to take advantage of disabled workers. Some employers are paying their disabled workers as little as “two cents an hour,” Jordan Melograna, the creative director of a Seattle advocacy group called Rooted in Rights, told Seattle’s KING5 news station. His organization is producing a documentary film this summer on the issue. “They don’t have a lot of political power to fight back and so of course when you don’t have political power to fight back you can be paid what anybody wants to pay you.”

The result is that “hundreds of thousands” of disabled workers earn around $2 per hour on average–with “many receiving a lot less,” according to this report on Prospect.org. Some employers put these workers into separate “sheltered workshops” where there’s not much opportunity for advancement.

But removing the sub-minimum wage provision may hurt some organizations, like the non-profit SKCAC Industries, which leverages the lower rate to offer jobs for disabled workers who can provide packaging, assembly, and organizational work for about 100 companies in the Seattle area.

Although SKCAC Industries would like to see a raise in wages paid to disabled workers, the reality is that many of its program partners would struggle with the idea. Some of the organizations interviewed by KING5 admitted that they wouldn’t be able to afford to hire any disabled people if they were forced to pay a higher wage.

“I don’t think this can be fixed overnight and I don’t think anyone is asking for that,” says Melograno. “I think the idea is to transition and to increase the wages, provide real opportunities, and not just assume that somebody is only qualified to work in a segregated setting putting together a nut and bolt, repetitively, forever.”

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