Understanding the Ableist Subminimum Wage During Disability Pride Month

Although many do not realize it, pride doesn’t end in June–it rolls right into July with Disability Pride month! With more than 61 million Americans living with a disability, and many more likely to develop some form of disability throughout their life, this month is desperately needed. Unfortunately, this significant minority is often overlooked by society and grossly discriminated against in the labor field.

Workers with disabilities face systemic disadvantages at nearly every level. They receive approximately 37% less pay than those without, and this divide only increases as level of education increases. Those with disabilities are less likely to receive higher levels of education, which correlates to higher wages and better employment opportunities.

Through regulation in the Fair Labor Standards Act, businesses are legally allowed to pay people with disabilities significantly less than the federal minimum wage due to so-called “lost” labor. The average hourly pay for disabled workers is $3.34 as opposed to $7.25 for non-disabled workers. As many only work part-time (Fewer than 20 hours per week) this amounts to far below poverty-level wages.

This policy is widely known as the sub-minimum wage, and it affects restaurant, gig, and agricultural workers in addition to workers with disabilities. While many other able bodied workers make the incredibly low federal wage of $7.25 an hour (last raised in 2009), disabled people have faced even more insultingly low wages from this unique legal status for 80 years. It remains one of the most damaging legal carve outs for working people with disabilities. Currently, special certificates are given to businesses to allow them to pay any of their employees with disabilities less than the legal federal minimum wage. In many cases the pay is drastically less than minimum wage and it is not unheard of for disabled individuals to make mere pennies.

Policies like these demonstrate a larger issue of rampant racism, sexism, and ableism that continue to exist within labor policies. The subminimum wage traces its roots back to post-antebellum America, when newly freed people continued to work in agriculture and sharecropping and their employers were able to keep them in slavery-like conditions through an extremly low wage and harsh workplace protections. Those who left agricultural work found jobs in industries that offered tipped opportunities rather than steady pay, where consumers could decide whether or not to pay people of color their rightly-earned wages based on their own personal values. Paying disabled workers less for their labor comes from the practices used back in this era, and has a disproportionate racial impact today.

Approximately 1 in 4 Black Americans have a disability, and you don’t have to be a wage expert to know Black Americans have already historically been paid less than their white counterparts. Even this year the wage gap between Black and white Americans is a whopping 21 percent difference.

As millions of Americans struggle to make ends meet during a period of rising inflation, these laughably low wages are rapidly losing purchasing power and becoming even more antiquated. Even with Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the rate of inflation is simply too high to provide people with a livable wage. A household with disabilities must have an additional 28% in income to maintain the same standard of living as a household without.

Despite attention from progressives like Senator Bernie Sanders and promises from President Biden, there has been little substantial change in policy on the federal level. Although Biden has voiced his support for the Raise the Wage Act, this would mostly affect the federal minimum wage for abled workers by removing the subminimum wage for tipped workers. There is a stipulation to end the special subminimum wage for people with disabilities, but only after an unspecified period of time in an already unknowable waiting period for any form of action.

There is hope, however, as disability rights activists and organizations continue to fight for radical change in our labor laws. The Transformation to Competitive Integrated Employment Act, was introduced in the House over a year ago. This monumental bill would directly target employed persons with disabilities and phase out the antiquated special certificates program. Not only would it require the Department of Labor to provide competitive integrated employment, but it would also assist people with disabilities in finding and retaining employment at the same fair rate as abled workers.

These sorts of bills are still in their earlier stages unfortunately, as many politicians refuse to give such vital bills their attention amid other growing concerns. Inherent ableism exists in all parts of society, even Congress – where the most powerful lawmakers in the country demonstrate a shameful lack of interest in ensuring people with disabilities are paid a fair wage.

We don’t have to live with this shameful status quo, however. As disability activist Stacey Park stated, “There is no reason for [people with disabilities] to feel shame for who we are. We were born into this world exactly as we are.” The world may not always listen to Park’s plea to respect the dignity of disabled people, and certainly not in the workplace, but we can change that. Through collective action and significant legislative changes, we can bring about true disability pride in jobs and beyond.

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