A man sits in his wheelchair at the front door of his residence, jacket in hand, waiting for the bus to come to take him to his center-based work program. The bus will not be coming today. It remains unclear when, or if, the bus will come again. The man has significant difficulty with verbal communication and comprehension and does not understand that the Day Training and Habilitation Program, where he works daily, is closed for the foreseeable future due to issues beyond his control. He won’t be earning money today and it remains unclear when, or if, he will be earning money in the future.
This scenario, though frustratingly sad, is very real, especially for my brother, the man to whom I am referring. While my brother and others like him are now back to work, the future undoubtedly represents significant change and uncertainty for individuals like Dan who often cannot tolerate and do not appreciate significant change in their lives. The scenario I mention caused Dan’s behavioral episodes to spike dramatically during this time, reminding us of the collateral damage that can be inadvertently accomplished if we fail to consider all consequences of the initiatives we pursue and the corresponding worlds that we change.
The Potential Consequences of Eliminating FLSA Section 14(c)
Advocates for closing center-based services and eliminating Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor and Standards Act (allowing payment of less than minimum wage) believe people like Dan should pursue competitive employment. Little thought (and even less comment) is given regarding what will happen to individuals needing hand-over-hand assistance to perform paid work or those who may only be able to complete a few units of work for an entire day of effort. Without the special minimum wage work that Section 14(c) currently allows, receiving a paycheck may soon be out of reach for many individuals with the most significant disabilities in the months and years that follow.
The aforementioned scenario is a very real possibility for many of the 15,000 plus individuals in Minnesota, like my brother and those served here at WACOSA, who are currently paid less than the minimum wage. The compelling cry to discontinue Section 14(c) and reduce center-based work is expressed loudly and clearly by those with a voice and a platform. But many individuals with the most significant cognitive and physical challenges cannot offer a rebuttal. Many of these individuals are often not as eloquent or articulate as the spokespeople we often see in front of microphones today. Are those with greater barriers to employment less deserving of an opportunity to earn a paycheck than those who can appear before lawmakers to make their case?
It’s ironic to me that the espoused Employment First Policy that “raises the expectations that all working-age Minnesotans with disabilities can work, want to work and can achieve competitive integrated employment,” threatens the stability of an already tenuous Minnesota workforce that reports an unemployment rate of 4%, as of September, 2016.
Finding Support in the Fair Labor and Standards Act
In an environment where qualified workers are difficult (if not impossible) to find, many seek to dismantle successful and critical employment relationships that often take years to foster. We at WACOSA work daily with business customers that appreciate the work we do as essential to the ongoing efficient operation and longevity of their business. Our services compete rigorously with other vendors. We do not receive concessions for quality, timeliness or price because of our mission or non-profit status.
We, and others like WACOSA across our state and country, provide a source of high-quality, consistent, and dedicated labor for 6 or more hours a day that allows anyone we serve – regardless of physical or cognitive ability – to work within the boundaries and characteristics that define them personally as a member of the United States workforce. Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor and Standards Act, when applied legally and correctly, remains an important reasonable accommodation that, if scrapped, has no viable alternative for persons who cannot or choose not to participate in competitive employment.
In a meeting I attended recently, I was challenged regarding some of the beliefs I hold. The individual addressing my perspectives, citing many of the current/pending state and federal legislative initiatives, remarked;
“Even though some individuals may not be allowed to earn less than the minimum wage and may not be capable of working at a competitive level, they could still be ‘involved’ with work. In fact, these individuals would still be able to take part in program activities exploring competitive work, participating in tours, taking part in work-related experiences and doing skill building.”
When I asked a WACOSA client named Dave, who is one of WACOSA’s most dedicated and committed workers who earns less than the minimum wage to comment on this perspective, he just frowned and in a quiet voice responded, “That idea sucks”. I thought to myself as I walked away, enough said.