On a workshop floor in suburban Minnesota, Alexander Williamson packs earplugs into boxes.
He’s held a variety of different jobs over the years: folding balloons, assembling medical supplies, delivering newspapers. But because Williamson is autistic, uses hearing aids, and deals with hemihypertrophy (one of his legs is longer than the other), he is paid a paltry $2.45 an hour for his work.
Williamson, who asked to use a pseudonym for fear of professional retaliation, is one of the roughly 321,000 disabled workers paid a sub-minimum wage in America. Most of them are employed through "sheltered workshops," or what are sometimes called “community rehabilitation programs." These places are run by a mix of nonprofits and private firms, and receive both federal and private contracts that allow them to put disabled folks to work, whether fulfilling mail orders for credit card companies or assembling office supplies for the U.S. Army.
The reason someone like Williamson can legally be paid a sub-minimum wage is simple: a clause in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act that allows any firm with what's called a 14(c) certificate to pay out wages based on productivity or ability. This created a situation in which disabled workers might be paid anywhere from the standard federal minimum wage of $7.25 to as little as three cents per hour in the name of creating jobs for those who might otherwise never find one.
But rather than providing a living wage or the training needed to enter the workforce, critics say, sheltered workshops tend to create what Cheryl Bates-Harris, a senior advocacy specialist with the National Disability Rights Network, calls “a bridge to nowhere." Disabled people often end up stuck in career paths that don't seem like real paths at all, and as the politics of work and inequality have shifted leftward in recent years, advocates have grown louder in demanding wholesale change of what they describe as a broken system.
“The sheltered workshops market themselves as ‘help us to help train an individual for competitive employment,'" Bates-Harris said. "The reality is that people never leave sheltered workshops, people will stay there until they die, or until they retire."
Class consciousness in the disabled community is further compounded by the fact that the directors of sheltered workshops can pull in huge salaries. According to a 2018 report by the National Council on Disabilities, the ten largest sheltered workshops had a combined annual revenue of $523 million, and the CEO of the biggest sheltered workshop received a salary of $1.1 million while employing 1,790 sub-minimum wage workers.
It’s not only the poverty wages and pay disparities that are deeply unfair, advocates and disabled people said: People in the disabilities community feel totally segregated from the contemporary workforce. Liz Weintraub, who worked in a sheltered workshop assembling shopping guides for grocery stores before becoming a lobbyist for disability rights, said her workplace was incredibly isolating.
"People think that we need to be in a contained place, somewhere that we could be together with our friends and not bother anyone else,” said Weintraub, who has cerebral palsy. “(They think) we need to be with our kind of people or we’ll be a bother.”
Sheltered workshops have been closed or are being phased out in several states, thanks in part to oversight by the Obama-era Justice Department. But the results have been mixed at best. In Vermont, where sheltered workshops were phased out way back in 2002, 38 percent of people with disabilities were employed in integrated settings by 2016, compared to 19 percent nationally, as the Lansing State Journal reported. Conversely, Maine ended sheltered workshops starting in 2008, and has seen a massive uptick in “community based non-work activities”, showing the pitfalls of failing to replace a fraying system with a meaningful alternative.
Matthew Cortland, a writer and lawyer who lives with disabilities and chronic illness, thinks this should only be the beginning of the process. “14(c) sheltered workshops should be phased out. But that isn't nearly enough, there's much more that must be done,” Cortland said.
“You shouldn't need to be a lawyer in order to get reasonable accommodations on the basis of disability from an employer, but all too often, that's what it takes,” he said.
Closing down the workshops also doesn’t fix one of the most pressing issues of the disabilities community: poverty. In 2018, the poverty rate for disabled adults 18 to 64-years-old was 25.7 percent. Meanwhile, according to the United States Census Bureau, the poverty rate for a non-disabled person fell below 12 percent.
If it seems as if lawmakers and those in America's vast, complex social services industrial complex have not been been able to create an organized system that is inclusive to the various needs of disabled people, that's because they haven't. But maybe that’s where the problem lies: Governing bodies and many prominent, seemingly benevolent institutions still utilize an ableist sense of what labor is.
“When we think of ‘work’ or ‘labor,’ the idea elicits images of paid work and rigid ideas of employment," said Alice Wong, a disability rights activist and sociologist who lives with spinal muscular atrophy. "For people whose body/minds cannot conform to capitalist structures (e.g., a 9-5 job, being a taxpayer, certain career paths and trajectories such as college), they’re seen as unproductive and no longer of value to society.”
As labor rights in general are placed at the forefront of progressive politics, broad reforms are being targeted specifically at disabled workers. Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has called for free vocational training for disabled workers in her education policy. Bernie Sanders seeks to combine large Social Security expansions with a job guarantee for any disabled person who wants to work.
But advocates stressed that taking a more radical approach goes beyond mere policy.
“Disabled people contribute to society in a number of ways, not just through paid labor," Wong said, adding, “I want to live in a world that supports people who can work, cannot work, or vacillate between both.”
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