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Bark’s Bytes #14 | Commensurate Wage is Not a Turkey

Fueled by an egregious situation involving an Iowa turkey farmer, there have been some provocative media stories and federal committee hearings calling for the repeal of the commensurate wage provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). To be clear, the review and discussion of the commensurate wage provisions to ensure that outcomes are meeting original intents should be encouraged. Unfortunately, statements in the National Disability Rights Network document entitled Segregated & Exploited – A Call to Action are both misleading and one-sided; and those who are championing the repeal of the commensurate wage provisions at committee hearings are only telling half the story.

Presuming most of the readers have worked at some point in their life I assume that everyone understands that not every worker in America is paid a guaranteed wage. There are many examples of workers that are non-disabled who get paid a special minimum piece-rate, sub-minimum wage plus tips, or 100% commission (assembly worker, food server, sales professional) that result in earnings commensurate with their productivity.

Unlike Greece that is struggling with an economy where workers are paid more because of their personal connections than productivity, I believe that one of the most important elements of capitalism is that most often workers and businesses are paid based on the value of what they produce – nothing more and nothing less. Few among us would choose to leave a server at a breakfast diner a 15% gratuity if we knew that person was earning $15 an hour.

The following points are an attempt to quickly tell the other half of this story and explain why the commensurate wage certificate is an important option in providing meaningful work to people with disabilities.

  • Providers are NOT paying sub-minimum wages to anyone. Providers with a commensurate wage certificate are paying special minimum wages that are monitored and enforced by the FLSA. The process to obtain a commensurate wage certificate is rigorous, reported on annually, subject to renewal procedures, and enforced by the Department of Labor.
  • Calculating a special minimum wage requires the provider to establish the local market wage, not the minimum wage, and the output of a worker who is non-disabled to determine the “unit rate” for the work to be completed. The provider must then track the number of units the worker who is disabled produces and multiply this by the rate to determine each individual’s earnings. Everyday workers who are disabled are paid more than the minimum wage because they produce units at a rate exceeding the standard.
  • Human service providers are able to secure contracts with businesses that offer meaningful work to clients who are disabled because the cost to produce the units matches the market. To expect businesses to pay more than “market value” for a unit is asking the private sector to subsidize the human service system. This added cost would have to be passed onto the consumer inflating the cost of living and essentially become a hidden tax.
  • Facility-based programs are usually located near other similar businesses within the community. Furthermore, according to the most recent MN State survey of DT&H providers, 61%, of the workers who are disabled are facility-based, 34% work as part of a crew at an employer-based setting, and 12% are hired directly by a business. Facility-based programs offer an important choice for vulnerable adults not ready or interested in working within an employer-based setting.
  • Finally, let’s talk about choices for workers who are disabled and their families. No one is required to be served by a provider with a commensurate wage certificate. By definition, segregation is to impose the separation of a group or class from the rest of society and that simply does not apply to clients with guardians and independent case mangers that choose commensurate wage providers. If a person with a disability does not want to be paid a special minimum wage, they are free to find a job on their own for a wage they find acceptable. There is no need to destroy an option that permits human service providers and businesses to offer meaningful work at a fair wage to millions of our citizens with disabilities.

In closing, what the opposition doesn’t tell anyone is that the repeal of the commensurate wage provisions will result in the loss of meaningful work and wages for millions of citizens with disabilities without any alternative options. At Merrick, the loss of the commensurate wage provisions would result in the loss of work for more than 200 clients that last year made more than $565,000 in wages. These individuals have been certified as disabled, by law are vulnerable adults, rely on transportation services, require 24-hour support and supervision, and cannot function independently at a business or they wouldn’t be in our program. What are they to do if there is no work?