Advocates Divided over Paying People with Disabilities Below Minimum Wage

May 30, 2016; Texas Tribune

A Texas committee is currently considering the future of the so-called State Use program, which allows state agencies to bypass the bidding process to give contracting preference to nonprofits that employ the disabled, often at wages that are below minimum wage and at contracting prices higher than they would otherwise be. Around $100 million worth of contracts are made under this program each year. The nonprofit Expanco is one of those contractors, paying its 140 employees at $2 to $5 per hour, well below the federal minimum wage.

Texas lawmakers are poised to take a hard look at the State Use program in 2017 after they made significant changes to its oversight structure in 2015. That year, lawmakers shut down the Texas Council on Purchasing from People with Disabilities, the obscure entity that directed the program for more than 30 years. The Texas Workforce Commission took control with orders to assess the program’s future and give disabled advocates more input, in part by creating the advisory committee that laborers came to testify before.

The question at hand is critically important: Are such programs exploitive, or an important part of a system of supports for people with serious physical and cognitive disabilities? Rick Cohen wrote extensively about the centrality of the issue of employment among people with disabilities, including coverage of so-called “sheltered workshops” that pay sub-minimum wages in isolated settings. Cohen reported that approximately 420,000 people worked in sheltered workshops in 2014. At that time, he wrote that many states were beginning to question and eliminate these programs:

Orquideo DePina used to be one of the sheltered, sub-minimum-wage workers employed by Training Through Placement. At TTP, one of DePina’s supervisors told him, “You’re never going to get a job out there.” Now a beneficiary of the settlement, DePina goes to work every day at Progress Automotive, where his job responsibilities include changing oil and rotating tires. His boss at the auto shop, Greg Murphy, says there is “no question that [he] should be working in the community” rather than a sheltered workshop. “He is a great employee and has continued to grow every single day.”

So put Rhode Island down on the side of states that are beginning, whether voluntarily or not, to rid themselves of the retrograde practice of sheltered workshops. But what about other states? A class action lawsuit against Oregon’s sheltered workshop filed in 2012 was joined by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2013. Oregon and other states are likely to follow Rhode Island in ridding themselves of this practice, but it will take more than just calling for a move of persons with disabilities out of sheltered workshops into jobs in the community. The Rhode Island settlement calls for the state to put money toward helping sheltered workshops transform themselves from segregated work settings paying their disabled employees next to nothing into agencies that function to place disabled persons like DePina into jobs that pay at least the minimum wage.

Although many reports of the State Use program in Texas start with a call to the employment needs of those with cerebral palsy, according to a previous report in the Texas Tribune, that’s applicable to less than half of those employed through the program.

In 2013, 45 percent of those employed through the program suffered from a mental illness or developmental disability, according to state records. Eleven percent had a physical impairment. Smaller amounts suffered from visual or hearing impairments, or were former substance abusers. Thirteen percent fell into the category of “other,” which includes attention deficit disorder, severe diabetes, and dyslexia.

Some advocates hope the law allowing and subsidizing such employment will be reformed to stop the subsidization of companies that pay their employees less than minimum wage. In 2015, a review of the program found that some people with disabilities were being paid only 61 cents per hour for factory work. “That’s indefensible,” said Dennis Borel, executive director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, which opposes the sub-minimum-wage program. “Calling that a good thing for people is just not right.” Others support the program, which is allowed under a federal law that allows for sub-minimum wage employment of workers who have disabilities. For example, David Dodson, Expanco’s president, says their employees would rather have paying jobs than be in a day program. And because their productivity is often affected by their disability, low pay is necessary to maintain financial stability.

This consideration could prove to be a turning point. Many advocates see this as one of the critical civil rights issues of our time.—Ruth McCambridge

  • Paul Higgins

    Thanks for presenting both sides of the argument. We need to keep in mind that individuals with disabilities are…individuals. It’s difficult to make broad statements and potentially damaging to base policy decisions on sweeping assumptions.

    Imagine a sheltered workshop where one employee produces 100 widgets an hour and another produces only ten. Each is working to the best of their ability. Granting (at least) minimum wage to the first employee may be the right thing. But what if granting minimum wage to the second employee means that the organization loses money on each widget he produces? Is that just? Is it fair? Is it sustainable? Is everyone involved well-served by granting the employee a dignified wage if the organization will then fold, taking away the workplace?

    Treating folks with various disabilities with respect and dignity requires individual solutions. I fear the unintended consequences of those who think their just and well-motivated solutions fit everyone.

  • Kirk Joslin

    It is probably not clear to say “advocates divided.” Disability advocates are mostly unified on this. The split is between the advocates and the service providers who employ people with disabilities at a sub minimum wage.