Updated at 6:11 p.m. ET on August 12, 2020.
For 15 years, Ross Ryan traveled an hour from his Oregon home to clean bathrooms, mop floors, and take out trash at noisy car dealerships and cavernous state buildings from 4 p.m. until midnight. His employer paid him about 60 cents per completed task—and it was legal.
Ryan’s employer was a sheltered workshop, a program that exclusively employs people with disabilities for less than minimum wage. Ryan, 51, has a developmental disability called Russell-Silver syndrome and couldn’t find a job after graduating from high school. Until his 40s, he believed that a sheltered workshop was his best option. But he didn’t like it. “We were treated as second-class citizens,” he told me. “They looked down on us like we didn’t know what we were doing and we didn’t know the value of money.”
Although the Americans With Disabilities Act, passed 30 years ago this summer, protects people with disabilities from employment and pay discrimination, a little-known loophole allows employers that hold a special certificate to pay disabled workers less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. These employers can even pay workers with disabilities according to how productive they are, or at a rate per piece. In other words, if the average nondisabled worker cleans 10 car-dealership bathrooms an hour for $7.25, and the employer can show that the disabled worker cleans one bathroom an hour, it can pay the disabled worker 72.5 cents an hour. This waiver program stipulates no minimum for wages paid to workers with disabilities. The same rules do not apply to nondisabled people: An employer cannot pay a nondisabled worker less for performing below peak productivity on an “off day,” because they, unlike some disabled workers, are guaranteed a minimum wage.