Are Subminimum Wages for the Disabled Ever a Good Thing?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader emailed me a reasonable dissent over my piece cheering Hillary Clinton’s push to end subminimum wages for disabled workers:

My brother-in-law has Down’s syndrome, and he works jobs for less than minimum wage. He does not really understand numbers, and he has minimal verbal skills. He frequently does not talk at all.

I remember he once came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder; he wanted to show me (wordlessly) that he had two dollar bills. At the time, he did not understand that they were worth less than a 20 dollar bill. He may understand the difference now.

In spite of his profound disabilities, he can clean and do laundry. It means the world to him that he earns his own money; it makes him like his (able) brothers. And the jobs that hire him do not get $7.25/hour worth of work. I think we are all happy with the arrangement.

Several other readers provided more smart pushback in the comments section, and my colleague Chris edited together some of the best responses below. This first reader insists we need to draw more distinctions in this debate:

Fournier’s post seems to throw all people with disabilities into one pot. Some disabilities (say, sitting in a wheel chair) may be a handicap for some jobs, but there are plenty of other jobs where a person with this disability can work just as well as someone without disabilities. Paying the disabled person a lower wage is unfair.

But there are also people with much more severe (in the sense of hindrance to work) disabilities.

Their work is more like supervised playing, the results of which people will only buy out of charity (say, pottery made by someone with the Down syndrome). Allowing these people this work is very helpful for their self esteem but it simply isn’t worthwhile from a purely economic standpoint, so paying them a federal minimal wage will destroy these opportunities.

Deciding which person falls into which category is another thorny issue, but treating every disability the same is not the answer.

Another reader has a real-life example of such distinctions:

I have a brother-in-law on the autism spectrum, and a co-worker with MS [multiple sclerosis]. My co-worker has the much more apparent disability; he is reliant on voice activation for much of his workday. My brother is fully physically capable, is communicative, and can do most tasks, but emotionally- and responsibility-wise, he’s a 13 year old.

My co-worker likely makes more money than I do, and he deserves it; he has a master’s degree and is an excellent employee.

My brother had a “shelter job” for years, making ~$4.50 an hour, but also receiving close supervision and peer interaction, and the “company” he worked for dumped all proceeds into staff and facilities to provide their employees with access to low-cost therapy, sports leagues, and other events.

But he quit working there to try and make “more money,” and he’s quit or been fired from about six jobs in two years. He’s currently unemployed and on a waiting list to get back into his old position.

This next reader gives an impassioned defense of the sheltered workshops that hire the disabled:

Not every employer is looking to exploit their workers. The majority of sheltered workshops are non-profits who contract with local businesses and provide critical life skills (and often residences) to their workers. The majority of these workshops barely break even.

The program that is in place under the FSLA [Fair Labor Standards Act] is closely regulated and observed by the Department of Labor. You have to have a special certificate to employ individuals with vocational disabilities, and even then you have to base their pay rates on their specific disability in relation to the work they are performing.

I am an unabashed progressive who hates unfair wages, but this is a program that is helping the disabled, not exploiting them.

The people who are in sheltered workshops are often extremely disabled for the work they are performing. To these individuals, the job itself means considerably more than the pay. It is a point of pride to be able to engage in meaningful work at all. If you get rid of differential wages for the disabled, people will stop hiring the disabled, and a significant source of pride and feelings of normalcy in those people’s lives will be diminished.

Of course, Hillary Clinton isn’t thinking about any of those things. She’s just sucking up for votes and trying to sound like she cares about the “little people.”

One more reader with a real-life example:

I have family member who did one of those programs. She needs close monitoring and regular (like every 10 minutes) direction and feedback. In hiring you have to ask yourself, “Can this person do the job without unreasonable supervision?” In her case, the answer is no.