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Fair Pay for the Disabled
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Fair Pay for the Disabled

Various workers' rights groups in the US have been very excited at the recent news that the Obama Administration is planning to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour for federal contractors, but this proposal has not been greeted with universal approval by certain other groups. Obama's plan initially did not include the disabled employees of the aforementioned contractors, which was quite a glaring omission, particularly when you consider how hard the administration has been trying over the last few years to improve pay rates for disabled workers. Disability rights groups have pressured the President to reconsider and rethink this plan.

It is not just a question of whether the disabled employees of federal contractors should earn the federal minimum wage, or the minimum wage of their own state, whichever is higher, vs. $10.10 per hour. Employers can make use of a not widely-known clause in the Fair Labour Standards Act, which gives them the power to use a different pay scale for disabled employees, based on their "productivity", rather than the minimum wage laws. This means that employees with disabilities have frequently been paid a wage that is subminimum, often by several dollars an hour, or sometimes even just pennies! This has been the case with employees of Goodwill Industries in Pennsylvania, a charitable non-profit organisation (ironically) who have been known to pay their staff as little as 22c per hour.

These kind of subminimum pay rates are justified on the grounds that disabled workers may be much less productive than non-disabled ones, and so they are paid a percentage of the work they do. This exemption in the Labour Standards Act is also defended on the grounds that it actually promotes employment for the disabled, such as those in wheelchairs, as it makes it easier for potential employers to hire them.

Sadly what it really promotes is exploitation, as it means employers are able to profit from hiring someone for far less than the minimum wage. Disability rights campaigners have been fighting against this lsubminimum wage for decades now, calling it offensive, exploitative and dehumanising, saying that it is actually discriminating against disabled people in the workplace and in the pay structure. They say that it is based on an old, outdated "charitable" type of approach to disability employment and in society.

It looks as if many in the Obama Administration are rethinking this discriminatory pay model at present, no doubt as a result of all the pressure from action groups. The Administration previously claimed that they could not change this clause in the Act without an Act of Congress, but now the Labour Department is reconsidering the legal ramifications. If justice prevails, they should find that it is possible to pay the same minimum wage to everyone, able-bodied or otherwise. And this would be a key victory for disability rights groups, and those who they represent.


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