Tom Ridge: It’s time to end subminimum wage for workers with disabilities

Feb 10, 2021

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There is no excuse for treating an entire class of American workers differently from others based solely on the characteristic of disability.

Tom Ridge, Opinion contributor

Among the millions of Americans who watched President Joe Biden’s Super Bowl interview on CBS were families touched by disability. One in five Americans has a disability, so it’s not an insignificant number.

I have to believe many of those families listened with great interest to the president’s comments when it came to the federal minimum wage — and for reasons you might not expect.

President Biden made news when he told Norah O’Donnell that he did not think his plan to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour is likely to happen as part of his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 aid package. It’s mainly due to a procedural issue now being debated in Congress.

Let’s set that procedural debate aside, because for families who live with disability, the focus isn’t so much on raising the minimum wage, but rather achieving a living wage at all.

As part of his American Rescue Plan, Biden has proposed not only increasing the minimum wage but doing away with a nearly century-old law that allows employers to pay individuals with disabilities far less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

There is no excuse for treating an entire class of American workers differently from others based solely on the characteristic of disability, yet that is exactly what current law allows.

The National Organization on Disability has joined with many of the largest and most effective disability organizations in America in opposing subminimum wages for workers with disabilities. We applaud Biden for his commitment to eliminating the subminimum wage, and we look forward to working with Republicans and Democrats in Congress to get it done. We cannot allow it to become a casualty of negotiations in the House and Senate.

When I testified before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission on this issue in 2019, I explained that the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 unequivocally told the world that discrimination based upon race, color, religion, sex or national orientation would not be tolerated in America. The Americans with Disabilities Act expanded the Civil Rights Act’s powerful and historic protections to include people with disabilities. All Americans should have the opportunity to pursue their dreams.

The phase out of what is known as section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which sanctions paying individuals with disabilities less than minimum wage, is no less than another critical civil rights issue. It is inconsistent with the fairness and equal opportunity guaranteed to every citizen in the United States under existing legislation.

Some people working under 14(c) certificates earn mere pennies per hour. This system tells Americans with disabilities and their families that they are not worth the same as other Americans, that society values them and their labor less.

In 1938, when the FLSA legislation was passed, it was assumed that a worker with a disability was less productive than a non-disabled worker. In retrospect, it was a flawed assumption. We want to be fair to the intent of the original legislation, which was to provide individuals with disabilities an opportunity to enter the workforce.

Nearly a century later, however, the law still contains Section 14(c). Now we know that workers with disabilities, given equal opportunity and appropriate tools or technologies, can perform as well as their non-disabled counterparts. This has been reaffirmed in the past year with so many of us working successfully from home, something people with disabilities have argued they could have been doing all along.

It is long past time to take this fair, commonsense step in the march to freedom for Americans with disabilities. By ensuring that the elimination of the sub-minimum wage remains part of his American Rescue Plan, President Biden can send a powerful message that all Americans, including those with disabilities, must have a chance to have the financial freedom and security we all desire.

Tom Ridge was the first U.S. secretary of Homeland Security and 43rd governor of Pennsylvania. He is chairman of the National Organization on Disability.

Read at USA Today

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