Minimum Wage…For Some

Applebee’s Stiffs Autistic Employee—and It’s Hardly Alone

An Applebee’s in Rhode Island failed to pay an autistic young man for a year—making it just the latest U.S. company to profit off disabled workers.

10.22.15 5:00 AM ET

Caleb Dyl, a young man with autism, worked for a year as a prep cook at an Applebee’s near his Rhode Island home. His job coach noted he was a “tireless worker,” and a colleague told Dyl’s father they were lucky to have him.

But Applebee’s, it seems, forgot something rather important. It didn’t pay him. For close to a year.

Applebee’s quickly apologized and promised to make good—which is, if not to its credit, at least is not to its further detriment, either.

A rep for Applebee’s insisted to Rhode Island’s WPRI News that the restaurant had no idea this was going on. Instead, it suggested that the fault for this injustice lies with the state agency that helped train and place Caleb in his position.

However, it’s a bit of a headscratcher why anyone balancing the books at Applebee’s didn’t notice it was getting 12 hours of free labor a week. Is it likely no one would have noticed if Dyl were being paid double?

Dyl’s parents raised alarms about this issue several times, both to Applebee’s, which allegedly claimed it lost his direct deposit paperwork and had him redo it (and still didn’t pay him), and to the state agency that placed him. Dyl didn’t get a promise of a paycheck until WPRI contacted Applebee’s.

Dyl’s experience is infuriating, but sadly not surprising.

We have a two-tiered system of employment in this country. The majority is provided with a government guarantee for a minimum wage for their labor—regardless of their level of productivity.

But not so for people with disabilities. There is no minimum wage. They can be paid pennies an hour, and it’s all perfectly legal.

One worker in Maryland was documented earning $.06 an hour. At that rate, it would take her 295 hours to earn enough to buy a single ticket to a 3D movie.

This two-tiered system has led to a perception that the work of people with disabilities is not worthy. As if employers were being charitable by “allowing” people with disabilities in their workplaces.

Quite the contrary. Organizations that employ people with disabilities at subminimum wages compete with one another for contracts, especially from the federal government.

The nation’s largest coordinator of federal jobs for people with disabilities, SourceAmerica, is under federal investigation for alleged fraud and conflicts of interest in awarding federal contracts at subminimum wages—because these contracts can be so valuable.

In one sense, Dyl was better off than some other workers with disabilities. He worked at an Applebee’s—an integrated workplace. Many others work in segregated, sheltered workshops, and many are denied the promise of community integration that is a fundamental tenet of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Meanwhile, companies that do hire people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), including autism, find that it is no selfless endeavor. It’s a sound business decision. More than three-quarters of employers who employ people with I/DD rate their workers as good or very good in key areas.

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The TIME act, a bill that supports the gradual dissolution of subminimum wages, is working its way through Congress. Its passage is nothing less than an urgent matter of fairness, dignity, and respect.

While we wait for TIME to pass, an instructive comparison can be made between the U.S. and the U.K.

Last year in the U.K., Welfare Minister Lord Freud was harshly criticized when he brainstormed the idea to pay people with disabilities subminimum wages, claiming they aren’t “worth the full wage.”

Subminimum pay, along with this rationalization, is enshrined in U.S. law. But in the U.K., the idea is abhorrent.

Opprobrium rained down on Freud. Ed Miliband of the Labour Party demanded Freud’s resignation. David Cameron distanced himself from his fellow Conservative and said those were “not the views of anyone in government.”

Freud, in turn, offered abject apologies. “I was foolish to accept the premise of the question,” he said. “To be clear, all disabled people should be paid at least the minimum wage, without exception, and I accept that it is offensive to suggest anything else.”

Those who defend subminimum wages often cite concern for the already appallingly high unemployment rate for people with disabilities. However, about 46 percent of people with disabilities of all kinds are employed in the U.K. In the U.S., only about 35 percent are.

The continued legality of a subminimum wage bolsters the idea that the work of people with disabilities is, literally, not valuable.

Dyl likely already needs support when advocating for his rights. It is not all that surprising, then, given disabled workers are treated as if their labor is inconsequential, that Dyl’s employers neglected to give him what he deserved—a paycheck.