By MICHELLE DIAMENT
July 19, 2011
A U.S. Senate proposal designed to set limits on people with disabilities working for less than minimum wage is proving contentious ahead of a hearing slated for next week.
The proposal is part of a planned reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act. Though the bill has not yet been publicly introduced, a draft copy circulated to disability advocates who lobby on Capitol Hill is bringing about significant debate.
At issue is a section of the bill that would establish standards about who could be eligible to work for what’s known as subminimum wage, or earnings less than the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour.
Under the draft proposal, individuals with disabilities could work for subminimum wage if they meet certain age-related requirements and if they do so while receiving job training designed to prepare them for competitive employment.
What’s more, workers are not supposed to remain in subminimum wage situations for longer than six months unless they wish to, under the terms of the proposal.
Critics argue that the provision would do little more than offer sheltered employment providers a checklist to meet in order to deem people with disabilities eligible for subminimum wage jobs. They say this could work to increase the number of people with disabilities employed in low paying environments.
On Monday, the National Federation of the Blind ran an advertisement in The Washington Post opposing the bill. “Unequal pay for equal work on the basis of disability is unfair, discriminatory and immoral,” reads the ad, which indicates that those working for subminimum wage are being “exploited.”
Meanwhile, materials distributed by TASH and the National Down Syndrome Society charge that the subminimum wage proposal “creates several loopholes that may put more youth at risk of being placed in sheltered workshops and earning below the minimum wage.”
Moreover, the groups say that the draft legislation lacks safeguards to ensure that vocational rehabilitation providers provide minimum levels of supported employment services.
Not everyone is opposing the subminimum wage provision, however. Julie Ward, a member of the public policy staff at The Arc, calls the current proposal “a step forward” because it creates guidelines for a system that currently has little oversight.
“It does create some system to make it more difficult to be referred to center-based services,” Ward said. “We know that people are being sent in this direction and there are no protections. This provides protections.”
Already, a hearing to consider the bill has been postponed at least twice, in part due to continuing discussions about the legislation.
Currently, the Workforce Investment Act is scheduled to be discussed at an Aug. 3 meeting of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
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