by Representative Gregg Harper
From the Editor: This article first appeared in The Hill on September 11, 2017, and can be found in the newspaper’s online version at http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/labor/350125-lets-unlock-the-untapped-potential-among-millions-of-disabled. Its author is our friend Representative Gregg Harper, and we couldn’t ask for a better ally to see that blind people are paid a fair wage for a fair day’s work. Here is the wonderful article he penned:
It seems that the more time passes, the faster time flies. It feels like just yesterday that my wife Sidney and I were bringing home our daughter Maggie from the hospital, and then a few years later, our son Livingston.
Through our time as parents, Sidney and I have made it a priority to teach our children the value of hard work, and we feel strongly that time spent on hard work should be valued and appreciated. It has been our privilege to watch Livingston, now twenty-eight, learn that appreciation for hard work and persevere despite being diagnosed with an intellectual disability known as Fragile X Syndrome. Through his hard work, Livingston became one of the first graduates of Mississippi State University’s Access Program for students with intellectual disabilities and now is a dedicated part-time employee at Primo’s Café near our home in Mississippi. Livingston is loved at work for his positive attitude and appreciated for his commitment and enthusiasm.
There are many Americans across the country who are dedicated contributors to the workforce despite having disabilities. Unfortunately, under current law, these hard-working men and women can be paid less than the lowest legal wage because of their disabilities. This policy is based on a Depression-era mentality embodying low expectations for people with disabilities; however, I know from personal experience that, if given the chance to contribute, many Americans with disabilities want to and will help to provide for themselves.
That is why I am proud to have introduced the Transitioning to Integrated and Meaningful Employment (TIME) Act earlier this year. This bill would eliminate an antiquated provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act that allows the Department of Labor to issue special certificates to employers so they can pay subminimum wages to workers with disabilities. When this program was created in 1938, it was an exercise in charity. Today it is paternalistic and costly, while failing in its goal of improving economic freedom and employment for Americans with disabilities.
The TIME Act will responsibly phase out and repeal Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act without raising the minimum wage. The original intent of this provision was to incentivize businesses to hire veterans with disabilities after World War I, but it has failed to achieve this outcome. Rather than increasing the number of workers with disabilities in integrated, community-based jobs at competitive wages, the exemption has stimulated an explosion of nonprofit entities that receive government money, preferential government contracts, and even charitable contributions. While they may have good intentions, in reality their business models hold Americans with disabilities back.
Nonprofit entities with special wage certificates usually isolate people with disabilities in what are known as “sheltered workshops,” where they are hidden from the rest of society and usually perform menial jobs that are not available in the competitive economy. Proponents of the sheltered workshop model often argue that these programs offer workers with disabilities the opportunity to learn valuable skills and move on to more competitive and better-paying work. However, research reveals that 95 percent of all workers who start out in sheltered workshops never leave. Additionally, people with disabilities still experience extremely low levels of employment and excessive dependency on government assistance, meaning the program is failing in its purported goals.
Research shows that the sheltered workshop model costs more, despite paying disabled workers less than the minimum wage, but produces less than investments in customized or supported employment in integrated settings. Worse, people with disabilities have to break bad habits they learned in sheltered workshops. This means subminimum wage employment is more than just a step in the wrong direction—it’s two steps back for people with disabilities. It’s time to abandon this broken system.
As a committed conservative, I believe firmly in the rule of law and in the notion that we are all equal in the eyes of the law. Section 14(c) enshrines the idea that those with disabilities are unequal under the law and dooms them to a fate of menial and unfulfilling work for the rest of their lives. The current policy also guarantees that Americans with disabilities will remain dependent on government assistance from programs such as Supplemental Security Income and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. These programs are designed to provide for those in extreme poverty; work is supposed to relieve such poverty. Furthermore, taxpayers also have to pay the costs incurred by the Department of Labor to make sure that subminimum-wage employers are complying with the complex rules that govern the special certificate program.
It has been my pleasure to represent the people of the Third District of Mississippi since 2009 and to advance conservative policies and values while doing so. There is no more conservative value than to insist that all people have the opportunity to work hard, compete, and succeed in the marketplace on the same terms as everyone else. The TIME Act would not only achieve this objective; it would unlock currently untapped human potential among the millions of disabled people who want to work and compete for good jobs, reduce their reliance on government assistance, and shrink the size of the federal government.
This issue goes to the heart of what it means to pursue personal and economic freedom and to achieve the American dream. Section 14(c) stands in the way of allowing many, just like Livingston, to do that and therefore should be responsibly phased out by passing the TIME Act. With a national employment rate of just 35.2 percent for the disabled, it’s clear that the current model is broken. Our disabled Americans should have the opportunity to earn the same wages as their colleagues. Now is the time to act.