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How Businesses are able to Underpay Differently Abled Workers

Updated: Feb 23

My first jobs consisted of working at a local ice cream shop or in retail where the minimum wage job in Broadview Heights, Ohio paid around $8-$10 an hour. My paychecks were enough to go to the mall with my friends on the weekend or put gas in my car for school and tennis practice. But we all know now that minimum wage is not a sustainable source of income for adults in 2023. However, for many differently-abled adults, the minimum wage is considered a luxury. In a world in which many major corporations are able to pay differently abled employees subminimum wages as low as 22 cents per hour, that $8 actually sounds pretty good.

Subminimum Wages

Many of our essential jobs are performed by differently abled adults being paid subminimum wages. From the man that loads groceries into your car at the grocery store to the woman serving food to the elderly at a nursing home, differently abled adults are employed all across the nation without equal pay and treatment as their non-disabled co-workers. A disabled person’s co-workers might not even be aware of the drastic pay difference.

According to Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, businesses are permitted to pay differently-abled employees based on their performance instead of by the hour. This act is utilized primarily by nonprofit or state-operated social services providers— specifically, sheltered workshops.

Sheltered Workshops

Employers are able to justify sub-minimum wages and employee segregation by saying “they’re providing the workers with vocational training and jobs for those who otherwise never find one.” (Friedman, C., & Rizzolo, M. C. , Fair Wages for People with Disabilities, 2020.) Despite these claims of “vocational training,” only approximately 5% of sheltered workshop employees left to take a job in the community. Sheltered workshops can be described as “a bridge to nowhere,” since disabled people often become trapped in these career paths without the prospect of being integrated into a typical workplace.

Sheltered workshops are essentially ineffective and predatory institutions that limit differently-abled adults.

Piece Rate Wages

Employees with disabilities are often paid in what is considered by Neil Romano, author of Subminimum Wage and Supported Employment (2018), “piece rate wages.” Piece rate wages differ from regular hourly minimum wage in that employees’ earnings are based on how much of a product or service they yield, not how much time it takes for them to complete this task.

I was able to hear about the ineffectiveness of piece-rate wages by speaking to a differently abled adult who is in the same therapy group as my brother. The individual identified as having Aspergers and was able to provide insight on their employment experience that was through a local rehabilitation service.

  • Responsibilities included general cleaning and housekeeping at a local hotel, required to lift 150 lb.

  • Hourly Pay: $0.83 cents per hour, before tax.

  • Average Daily Rate: $10 for 8-12 hours of work.

  • Describes herself as in “constant danger” of having a grand mal seizure due to the physical labor and mental demands of the job

When the interviewee informed their supervisor that these expectations exceeded their physical abilities, they were told to “not be stupid.” As upsetting as the stories this individual shared with me were, this experience with sheltered workshops and sub-minimum pay is not uncommon in the differently abled adult community. I can remember a story about a woman from Ohio who told her family that when she got received her first paycheck for two weeks of work, she would treat them to dinner. She was “surprised and sad when she received her first check for 38 cents” (The National Disability Employment Policy, 2021).

With Inefficiency Comes Inequality

Sheltered workshops also contribute to an ineffective workplace environment. Sheltered workshops are problematic in that the employee’s wages are based on their efficiency, yet the supervisors are not trained in ways to play to each individual’s strengths. For example, the person I interviewed recalled an experience they had in which they were reprimanded for trying to transcribe instructions for their deaf co-worker.

Due to its inherent segregated nature, sheltered workshops discourage collaboration between disabled co-workers. This further slows down productivity resulting in less of a yield of the desired product or service and, therefore, an even lower wage.

Meanwhile, non-disabled people are not always at peak productivity, and it is not acceptable to pay them less when they are not performing at the expected pace. I can remember many times my co-workers and I would chat or study while we were on the clock and we were hardly ever penalized for being unproductive. Employers' standards of employees' expectations and quality of life of neurotypical employees differ greatly from differently-abled individuals.

The legalization of piece rate pay is considered unjust by many experts. Subminimum wages at piece rates are based on a flawed system that does not take into consideration each employee’s disabilities while simultaneously discouraging efficiency within the workplace.

Yet, the subminimum wage is only a small piece of the systematic oppression of differently-abled adults. Luckily, there are actionable steps we can take to ensure that people of all abilities are supported and included in conversations surrounding work conditions and quality of life.

Actionable steps to ensuring differently abled individuals have access to safe living and working conditions

In 2023, we have the opportunity to promote a more inclusive society by uplifting differently abled voices and applying empathy and curiosity to our understanding of all marginalized groups. As we perform daily errands that might be serviced by sheltered workshops, we should be aware of the injustice of subminimum wage and advocate for equal treatment and pay for all individuals.

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