While this Depression-era policy had good intentions – to give crippled returning veterans at the time a shot at private-sector employment – it has become adopted largely by the very groups that advocate for disabled people’s rights. The program, known as Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, has become an integral part of so-called sheltered workshops inside which disabled workers perform manul labor tasks, such as laundry for Army bases.
Some families of these workers see this as a benevolent situation, a place for their handicapped relatives to go to earn a stipend to supplement their Social Security and Medicaid support. Some of the biggest disabled-rights umbrella groups, like United Cerebral Palsy, have affiliates that use the program and claim they couldn’t run their non-profit workshops otherwise. Defenders of the policy say some of these people are so severely disabled that they wouldn’t find any work without the program and the sheltered workshops that use them.
Curtis Decker is trying to change that.
The executive director of the National Disability Rights Network, a 32-year-old organization that has worked to get disabled people out of institutions and opposes the Section 14(c) program, organizes field research into the nation’s sheltered workshops, interviewing workers and collecting data on disabled subminimum wage earners.
Decker spoke with International Business Times recently about the subject and how his organization has been working to raise the profile of sheltered workshop labor.
IBTIMES: Disabled workers are the only category of employee that doesn’t have a wage floor. For example, student-learners cannot be paid less than 75 percent of the local minimum wage, and only if they’re enrolled in higher education. Adult workers under the age of 21 cannot be paid less than $4.25 an hour, and only then for up to 90 days before their wages have to go up. But for disabled workers employers fill out paperwork that’s ostensibly what the Department of Labor calls an “objective gauge” of how much less productive a disabled worker is compared to a fully abled one. And there’s no minimum. If a worker is considered to be only 20% as productive as an abled worker then then he or she would get $1.45 an hour.
DECKER: This is one of these weln the 1930s and it was veterans-oriented. The idea was that you had these returning woundl-intentioned ideas that has gone off the rails over the years. The rules were put in place ied veterans and if you let private employers pay them less than the minimum wage that would encourage them to hire wounded veterans into the workforce. This never really happened in any great number, but what did come along were disability organizations who created workshops for their clients. What you have now is that the vast majority of sheltered workshops are run by disability groups, like Goodwill, United Cerebral Palsy, Easter Seals, all kinds of other non-profit disability organizations who use the 14(c) certificate. What was also supposed to happen was that these workplaces were supposed to train these workers and give them certain skills for them to go out into the workforce. What has happened is some people stay at these places for 15, 20, 30 years.
IBTIMES: Let me get this right, you’re saying the one of the biggest utilizers of Section 14(c) certificates are the rights groups themselves?
DECKER: Right. These are the very organizations we’re in coalition with. But then suddenly, with this issue we are in conflict with them. There are also abuses in the private sector. We had that big scandal out in Iowa with Henry’s Turkey Service. It was a private business, and they were not only paying these men with mental disabilities crap wages but they were also taking their Social Security checks and putting them in really substandard housing. It was absolutely egregious. So there are private businesses that pay these people subminimum wage but a vast majority of 14(c) certificate workshops are run by disability groups.