My daughter expects to work. When she was about 5 years old, one of her favorite bath time activities was playing with a set of cups that she would fill up carefully and place on the edge of the tub. “Mo-ka-ma-KE!” she called out. She was imagining she was a barista, a job she had seen performed hundreds of times at the coffee shop.
If my daughter, who has Down syndrome, can imagine herself working in a job that allows her to participate in her community and gain independence, then why can’t employers do the same?
Part of the answer lies in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 which established a federal minimum wage, guidelines for overtime pay and child labor restrictions; it also created 14(c) certificates, which permit employers to pay people with disabilities less than minimum wage — and the law puts no limit on how much less.
Nearly 39 percent of Americans with disabilities were employed in October, with at least 70,000 working for 14(c) certificate holders, many of them “sheltered workshops” for adults with physical or intellectual disabilities. With no floor on wages, sheltered workshops have impoverished and isolated generations of people with disabilities.
But beyond fair pay we need to consider how we can more effectively support people with disabilities in the mainstream work force.
Kyle Stumpf is 32, has Down syndrome and communicates with some assistance. He worked in a sheltered workshop in Dubuque, Iowa, for five years. On most days he sorted clothes, but sometimes he cleaned the break room and the bathrooms. The city bus that picked Mr. Stumpf up at the house where he lived with his dad, Bill, and took him home at the end of the day cost $3 a ride. He was paid $3.35 an hour.
Bill Stumpf emphasized to me how little others expected from his son from early on. It started in school. “They pretty much warehoused him,” Bill said. “Eventually I got wore out arguing every year.” After high school, the Stumpfs looked only at workshops for Kyle.
The type of work performed in sheltered workshops varies widely. It might also include packing, collating and light assembly in a factory, or rolling silverware in napkins for a cafeteria. The Department of Labor explains the purpose of sheltered workshops with a language of benevolent protection.
But sheltered workshops are not the only places in which people with disabilities can work, although other options are less known, despite a government rule that requires employers to provide information on alternative work possibilities or be forced to pay the full minimum wage.
Sheltered workshops are described as places of training, yet some people work in them their entire lives. It is difficult for people with disabilities and their caregivers to leave the stability of routines, and for those who do, the transition can be filled with fear. Bill Stumpf says that he was anxious about his son moving to another job. “Kyle enjoyed working in the sheltered workshop,” Bill told me. “He liked the people he worked with, but he got half of minimum wage. It just got really comfortable. I think most people in our situation think, ‘Why rock the boat?’”
In 2013, Bill saw a presentation on “competitive integrated employment,” regular employment with support at minimum wage or above, and began to believe that more was possible for Kyle.
According to a 2020 report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Americans with disabilities working under a 14(c) certificate earn on average less than half of the federal minimum wage per hour. The new Congress must pass the Transformation to Competitive Integrated Employment Act, which would prohibit issuing new 14(c) certificates and phase out existing ones. The act would also help people with disabilities make the transition into the mainstream work force. This would mean that sheltered workshops would no longer segregate people with disabilities from their communities, and pay workers like Kyle Stumpf below minimum wage.
Several states have already begun moving away from recognizing 14(c) certificates and have instituted programs that support people with disabilities working in the community. Michelle Krefft, director of community and business engagement for Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services, told me that one of the biggest barriers to community integrated employment for people with disabilities is the hiring process.
But companies have begun to change their hiring practices and job requirements. With the labor market tight, employers are considering a candidate’s unique skills rather than searching for someone who can fulfill a broad list of requirements. This is as true for job applicants with a disability as those without.
Ms. Krefft and her staff help job candidates with disabilities get hired without traditional interviews. The candidate does the job for a paid trial period. She also works with candidates to create video résumés, which help many people with disabilities more effectively emphasize their strengths and the skills they can bring to a job. Just like all of us, people with disabilities have different strengths and needs. Personalized support and individual choice allows for a more satisfying job than the monotonous work of sheltered workshops.
According to the Collaboration to Promote Self-Determination, an advocacy coalition, supported, community integrated employment is significantly less expensive for taxpayers than sheltered workshops. One study found that for every dollar used to fund support services for community integrated employment, taxpayers receive $1.46 back in the form of paid taxes, savings from the expenses of sheltered workshops, and reduction in governmental subsidies.
And according to the Job Accommodation Network, an organization that has consulted with businesses on cost-effective accommodations for more than 35 years, 56 percent of surveyed employers report that accommodations needed for employees with disabilities cost nothing. For the accommodations that come with a cost, the typical one-time expenditure was $500.
Other parents of children with disabilities have warned me that educational and social support ends abruptly after high school. My daughter is now 10, and her experience in an inclusive, mainstream elementary school classroom has been nothing like the warehousing that Bill Stumpf described to me as Kyle’s later years in school. But the transition from school to employment takes planning, and knowing that my daughter has support to find a job that will be suited to her strengths, will allow her to save money, and see herself as an important part of a diverse team of people would make all the difference.
At least 17 states have introduced legislation to phase out 14(c) certificates. The federal government has also recently passed a rule that requires employers seeking certain contracts with the federal government to pay workers with disabilities no less than the full minimum wage. But these changes are not enough.
The 14(c) certificates stand in conflict with the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, which asserts that disability is a natural part of the human experience that does not diminish a person’s right to participate in all aspects of life, including work. The certificates also violate the Supreme Court’s Olmstead v. L.C. decision of 1999, which states that people with disabilities should live and receive services in the most integrated setting possible appropriate to their needs. It is not acceptable for any state’s policies to be in such conflict with national progress on disability rights in the last 30 years.
Both the Republican and Democratic Parties announced their support for ending the certificates at their 2016 and 2020 conventions. But that federal legislation has not been passed indicates that ending this discriminatory practice is more complicated than it might initially appear. It is less about changing a law and more about changing low assumptions about how people with disabilities can participate in the work force. Unless these expectations change, elimination of 14(c) certificates could result in an even lower employment rate for people with disabilities.
In October, Kyle Stumpf celebrated eight years of community integrated employment at a Papa Johns restaurant. He folds pizza boxes, cleans the trays in the ovens and fills up the soda machines. He uses a picture schedule at work to stay on track, and he checks in with a job coach who ensures that he has what he needs to work. Mr. Stumpf makes $8.25 an hour, a dollar more than Iowa’s minimum wage.
With his earnings, Mr. Stumpf likes to go out to eat and visit microbreweries. He is also putting some of his money in a savings account. When I asked Mr. Stumpf which job he liked better, the pizzeria or the workshop, he broke into a wide smile. “Papa Johns,” he said softly.
The manager now calls Mr. Stumpf in to work hours in addition to his regular shifts when they are busy. His job has also generated meaningful friendships with co-workers. “It’s real-life stuff,” Bill Stumpf said. “They’re looking at his worth.”
I don’t know if my daughter will work as a barista; these days she wants to be a singer like Taylor Swift. What’s important is that she is seen as a valuable member of her community. In the last few years, the number of people employed in sheltered workshops has steadily declined. The more than 70,000 people earning subminimum wage in October 2022 is a significant decrease from 2016, when 241,265 people with disabilities were employed at subminimum wage.
But such a decrease doesn’t necessarily mean that 140,000 or so people have found employment in an inclusive work force. Given the employment rate for people with disabilities (which for people with intellectual disabilities is even lower at an estimated 18 percent in recent years), it seems likely that many people who worked for subminimum wage under the Fair Labor Act will not be able to find jobs at all. Changing expectations, especially those informed by decades of social and economic discrimination, takes time, and ending 14(c) certificates is just the beginning.
Pepper Stetler is a professor at Miami University of Ohio and is working on a book on the history of the IQ test.
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