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A Parent’s Perspective on Disability Employment

Published November 17, 2023

Amy S.F. Lutz writes (November 8) from both experience and as a disability professional showing that elimination of the 14(c) wage paid to disabled workers is profoundly misguided. Minnesota considered and rejected such a course in its last legislative session, only narrowly avoiding an action spelling widespread unemployment and disenfranchisement for disabled workers like Lutz’ son and my daughter Elizabeth, who has worked at a disabled employment center in St. Paul for over a decade.

Advocates of eliminating the “subminimum wage,” have made two major errors that would have terrible consequences for disabled adults. The policy misapprehends both the basic realities of the labor market and the standards of equity it purports to defend.

Elizabeth’s experience belies descriptions of workplaces like hers as Dickensian dens that segregate disabled people to toil at monotonous work. Far from placing them in an environment in which they are exploited, such centers protect vulnerable adults from the risks and possible abuse they would face in an unfettered job market. Her job allows her to spend full days with talented staff and with her friends and co-workers. She receives a wage based on an established record of her productivity, which is not sufficient to support her, but does not cause her federal disability income to be reduced. Some of her co-workers stay at the center while others go into the community to work at businesses such as local supermarkets, where they are carefully supervised.

Suppose the subminimum wage were ended and an employer at a supermarket faced the choice of hiring someone to stock shelves. One applicant can stock product at twice the rate of another applicant who has cerebral palsy. Both are required to be paid the same minimum wage. Who will get the job? Probably not the disabled worker. Without the subminimum wage allowance, even employers who want to hire the disabled will have a disincentive to do so. Many more such workers will never find jobs at all.

Requiring that all workers, disabled or not, be paid the same wages confuses two types of equity. One kind of equity says people who are similarly situated should be treated the same. The other says that those who are not similarly situated should be treated differently. Those advocating the elimination of subminimum wages confuse the first type of equity with the second. A worker with cerebral palsy is not the same as a worker without it, and they should not be treated as if they are.

No one would deny the right of any worker to seek employment at any wage they might be able to secure, at or above the minimum. But to deny the opportunity to work for less than the minimum wage to those disabled workers who desire and enjoy such employment will mean that many more such workers will be closed out of the marketplace and will remain unemployed and home alone. It may also cause many disabled adult employment centers to shut down, reminiscent of Reagan era efforts to close centers for the mentally ill and leave them to fend for themselves.

These are the realities which advocates of eliminating 14(c) wages refuse to recognize.

Carlisle Ford Runge
Distinguished McKnight Professor of Applied Economics and Law
University of Minnesota