Slave Wages for the Disabled

A fight over subminimum wages came to a head in Lansing, Michigan last week, when activists battled cops on the steps of the State Capitol.

09.23.15 5:00 AM ET

A debate over the sub-minimum wages paid to workers with disabilities erupted into a scuffle between law enforcement and protesters last week at the state capitol grounds in Lansing, Michigan.

Police arrested blind protester Joe Harcz, 62, of Mt. Morris, who was informed by what, he noted, was ironically termed a police “courtesy call” that he will be charged with a felony.

Harcz told The Daily Beast that the Michigan State Police used “police state tactics” when, as he and other protesters tell it, they prevented Harcz and others from entering and challenging (with signs, T-shirts, and chants) a commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Michigan State Police did not immediately return a call for comment, but the AP reports that the police said they arrested a Mt. Morris man for “resisting and obstructing a security officer” and shoving two security guards. Harcz denied shoving anyone.

A news report shown on local station WILX in Michigan shows (starting at 0:21) a man with a white can trying to move round a metal barrier blocked by five police officers. Harcz can’t confirm that he is the man in the video, since he can’t see it, but another protester confirmed the video depicts Harcz. In the video, one police officer grabs Harcz’s arm to lead him away. Harcz appears to lose his balance and his cane comes close to hitting another officer in the face, who grabs the cane.

As the nation debates the possibility of raising the federal minimum wage to a living wage, it’s worth pausing to reflect on part of what is angering Harcz and other protestors. It is still perfectly legal in the United States to pay someone as little as $2 or $0.22 or even $.06(!) an hour to toil in a segregated workspace—if the worker is disabled.

The pay of hundreds of thousands of disabled workers, who often work in “sheltered workshops” separate from non-disabled peers, is subject to section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Unlike any other worker in the U.S., workers employed under 14(c) are paid solely according to their productivity, with literally no legal minimum wage.

Like the wider debate about the minimum wage, the use of section 14(c) has on one hand faced fierce criticism over the alleged exploitation of workers who are paid such low wages.

On the other hand, supporters of the law (or of a more graduated phasing out of the law) cite the fact that the number of available jobs would decrease if the minimum wage applied to disabled workers. However, what’s different about argument over the sub-minimum wage is that the debate between supporters and critics is non-partisan. Critics of sub-minimum wages come from both sides of the aisle.

GOP Rep. Gregg Harper of Mississippi recently introduced a bill known as the TIME Act. The bill aims to end legalized sub-minimum wages over the course of three years, and has drawn such ideologically divergent co-sponsors as Republican Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma and Democrat Donna Edwards of Maryland, who vote similarly on bills only 22 percent of the time.

“Section 14(c) of the FLSA was enacted out of ignorance regarding the true capacity of people with disabilities. Subminimum wage standards currently prevent over four-hundred thousand people with disabilities from gaining access to the work and training environments that have been proven to be more cost effective and to produce more competitive integrated work outcomes,” said Rep. Harper said in a statement. “Segregated, subminimum-wage work is just an expression of low expectations that instills a false sense of incapacity in individuals who could become competitively employed with the proper training and support.”

Jordan See, communications director for Rep. Harper, added that sub-minimum wages are “not a recognition of value of workers with disabilities. It reinforces a life of poverty. It’s a bipartisan issue, going against the Republican ideals of independence and self-determination.”

Those who oppose the abolition of 14(c), then, are also not members of any political party or ideology, but are primarily those who pay workers subminimum wages. These are often non-profit organizations whose employees are usually significantly disabled.

Thus explains the apparent oddity of a group of disability rights activists protesting an event commemorating a landmark of disability rights legislation. The commemoration was partly organized by Peckham Industries, a nonprofit that the protesters argue employs workers with disabilities at subminimum wages. (Peckham did not respond to phone calls and emails requesting comment.)

Several disability rights organizations are coming out in favor of the TIME Act and ending sub-minimum wages.

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“Subminimum wages are a form of legal discrimination against people with disabilities. People with intellectual and developmental disabilities [work] in warehouses or workshops for literally pennies an hour,” said Samantha Crane, Director of Public Policy at the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network. “Research shows that most of these people could be earning above minimum wages if they had proper support.”

Chris Danielsen, director of public relations for the National Federation of the Blind, points out that section 14(c) is a now-outdated New Deal program that was created when there were no disabled people in the workforce. “It’s not a start for most people with disabilities, because these are not even jobs that exist in the economy. They are make-work using outdated manufacturing techniques. People are never going to find competitive job sorting rocks by color and shifting one pile to another.”

Danielsen continued, “A lot of business would love to pay solely by productivity, but we have laws that require a minimum wage no matter what. It should apply to everyone.”

Harcz and some other disability activists were headed into the Michigan event when they say they were stopped by police officers in full body armor, carrying Tasers.

Eleanor Canter, another disability rights activist who was protesting the event, said police never explained why they were being blocked from entering the event. Police informed her they were taking away her bullhorn. “What we have is words. We’re not a security threat. Are you scared of a handful of disabled people with words and pasteboard?”

According to Harcz, he and his “ragtag group” tried to protest when they were prevented from entering. “I heard the police. Sometimes they weren’t silent. I went back and forth my cane to try to figure out where things were, where they were, go on grass around them.”

He continued, “I kept hitting barriers. Maybe they were police. I may have touched someone, but I’m not shoving anybody.”

Harcz is a caregiver to his two elderly parents and repeatedly mentioned the stress he was experiencing as a result of these charges. He is flummoxed by what he sees as the disproportion of the police response.

“Screw you guys, I have a right to enter. I can’t tell when the police are in my face. I wasn’t pushing anybody, but what the hell, man? I’m 150 pounds soaking wet. These police were giant fat, white guys. Even a blind guy could tell that.”