Letter to the Editor: Subminimum Wage for Disabled Workers Must Go!

Blind workers protested the subminimum wage at Goodwill Industries. Photo: Jim West / jimwestphoto.com

Note: The U.S. Department of Labor authorizes certain employers to pay people with disabilities a fraction of the minimum wage in what are called “sheltered workshops.” At last report there were 1,769 of these employers and 124,066 people getting the subminimum wage. Some workers are paid just a few cents an hour.

A bill introduced in Congress this spring called the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act would phase out the subminimum wage for people with disabilities over the next six years. A similar plan is included in another proposed bill, the Raise the Wage Act, which would increase the federal minimum wage to $15. -Editor

When you read the words “sheltered workshop,” what goes through your mind? What the hell am I being sheltered from?

Well, no matter where the nonsensical ideology came from, people with disabilities have been forced to put up with this exploitation for way too long. The subminimum wage is designed to keep us living in poverty. Is it because we’re not considered to be as “normal” or “fast” or “good” as non-disabled people?

When I first toiled in one of these hellholes in 1980, I was verbally abused, yelled at a lot by management with no apologies whatsoever. The work was boring and dead-end.

Then when I returned to the Twin Cities area, I started in a county program with no pay. It was hooked up into “vocational rehabilitation,” which is the biggest joke for me so far. It never gave me what I was after—real work that would get me anywhere, especially something I enjoyed doing, that was well-paying and, most importantly, union!

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I worked for a subminimum wage at St. Paul Goodwill, where one day a manager rudely told me, “You know you’re a schizophrenic,” and then at a Goodwill shop. One day I saw a $20 far from the register. I shoved it in my pocket and got fired. The pay was so low that I didn’t care.

My next dead-end sheltered workshop was Midwest Special Services. I hated it with a passion. Sometimes I was taken to do wash-bucket jobs at “normal” places—as if this was sup- posed to make me feel better, when I was still getting paid the same low wage.

The next one, Opportunity Partners, claimed to be a “work training program.” Some people who “worked faster” were paid the minimum wage, while the rest of us got less—that’s one way of dividing us. The bus service going over there was a night-and-day-mare. I was always the only radical in there, as well as the only Jew, feminist, you name it.

Vermont and a few other states have put an end to sheltered workshops. But in Minnesota we still have some left. A supposedly progressive disability community paper called Access Press even runs ads for them, which is pathetic. Here’s to closing down these hellholes!

Beth Blick
Stillwater, MN

Send letters to the editor to editors[at]labornotes[dot]org.

Comments

Helen Ramirez-Odell | 07/05/19

While many disabled persons deserve and should get at least minimum wage, this is not appropriate for all and would mean the end of some very needed sheltered workshops.My brother has an IQ of 16 and as an adult functions at the level of a two to five year old depending on what he is doing. He loves going to workshop but it takes two workers to try to keep him on task to do a little work. Some of the profoundly developmentally disabled individuals have a better quality of life by participating in workshop but not all workers should get minimal wage if they are extremely limited in what they are able to do. I would hate to see sheltered workshops for the profoundly developmentally disabled persons close because of this well-meaning law that fails to take into account the full range of disabilities.