Commission on Civil Rights Says It’s Time to End Subminimum Wage for People with Disabilities

Published September 21, 2020

People with disabilities are still legally allowed to be paid less than minimum wage, but the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is proposing an end to subminimum wage.

The Civil Rights Commission is bringing subminimum wage to Congress after receiving thousands of opinions from the public and persons of disability that work in Section 14(c) or outside of Section 14(c) businesses. The overall consensus was that this is a discriminatory section of the Fair Labor Act, and more came to light.

Not only is Section 14(c) discriminatory and outdated, but there is very little regulation and a lot of oversight, which has allowed this program to continue to be enacted without meeting its legislative goals. The goal of Section 14(c) was always to meet the needs of people with disabilities, so they could receive support and become independent within the competitive economy, as the report pointed out.

The Americans with Disabilities Act negates the need for subminimum wage, as integrating people with disabilities is required under the ADA. So, the Civil Rights Commission has visited a variety of workplaces, some that have used phase-out plans and others that have not. They’ve spoken to the people, they’ve analyzed and researched, and they have ultimately approached Congress with a plan to slowly remove Section 14(c) from use.

What is the Commission recommending?

In Subminimum Wages: Impacts on the Civil Rights of People with Disabilities (PDF), the Commission on Civil Rights proposes that:

  1. Congress should repeal Section 14(c) by phasing out to allow transition to competitive integrated employment models.
  2. Repealing Section 14(c) should not affect federal funding towards organizations such as vocational rehab.
  3. The Commission wants to see the federal government envision how the government can enhance chances for growth and success for people with disabilities, and act on it.
  4. Congress should expand funding for employment services and prioritize building in states transitioning from Section 14(c) programs.
  5. Congress should require annual reports on Section 14(c) programs.
  6. Congress should also assign a civil rights agency to focus on said reports.
  7. During the phase-out period, Congress should require in-depth reporting and accountability for those who hold Section 14(c) certificates.
  8. Following phase-out, Congress should continue to collect date employment outcomes on former Section 14(c) employees.
  9. Congress should increase enforcement of the Olmstead integration mandate.

How many businesses use Section 14(c)?

As of January, 2020, the Commission found that there are 1,558 certificates issued or pending and that 93% of those were held by community rehab programs. A community rehab program is a facility for vocational rehabilitation services, where people with disabilities receive help in learning independence. Segregation does not equal independence. Vocational rehab exists to help those with disabilities maximize their chances of employment in the world around them.

What exactly is subminimum wage?

Subminimum wage is the act of paying "certain individuals at wage rates below the statutory minimum," according to the Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division. The DOL goes on to clarify:

Such individuals include student-learners (vocational education students), as well as full-time students employed in retail or service establishments, agriculture, or institutions of higher education. Also included are individuals whose earning or productive capacities are impaired by a physical or mental disability, including those related to age or injury, for the work to be performed. Employment at less than the minimum wage is authorized to prevent curtailment of opportunities for employment. Such employment is permitted only under certificates issued by the Wage and Hour Division.

Section 14(c), which covers the employment of workers with disabilities, is part of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

What is the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights?

The Civil Rights Commission is an independent bipartisan agency established by The Civil Rights Act of 1957. Since that time Congress has extended the legislation of the Commission several times, though the last time was in 1994. They are an organization created to be independent of parties and opinions, and seek facts. The Civil Rights Commission is a federal agency meant to inform and help the development of civil rights policies and enhancements along.

Why is the Commission recommending a change now?

Section 14(c) was created to help protect people with certain disabilities and ensure that everyone could work safely. However, as time has gone on and more research has been performed, some companies are holding the certificate, and subminimum wage is not as fair as it was once thought to be.

In the Civil Rights Commission’s report, they found through research that people who are still receiving Section 14(c) subminimum wages are not categorically different from people with similar disabilities, who now work in competitive integrated employment. In this same report, they declared Section 14(c) to be discriminatory and outdated.