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Pandemic relief bill would jeopardize jobs for people with developmental disabilities by eliminating subminimum wages

February 9, 2021 1 comment

President Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill now being negotiated in Congress contains vital economic relief for individuals, businesses, and state and local governments.

But it is also the latest vehicle for continuing efforts to eliminate both subminimum wages and congregate or vocational work centers for persons with disabilities.

In an email we sent yesterday (February 8) to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, we noted that the elimination in the COVID pandemic relief bill of subminimum wages would reduce or eliminate employment opportunities for thousands of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) in Massachusetts and other states.

Warren has, in the past, taken a lead role in calling for the elimination of the Section 14(c) wage certificates that allow the payment of subminimum wages to persons with disabilities.

We previously contacted Senator Warren about this issue, hoping she might reverse her position on it. We’re still hoping for such a reversal from Warren and many other members of Congress, but that may be an uphill battle.

Myths about paying subminimum wages

The claim that vocational work centers and 14(c) certificates promote exploitation or segregation of people with I/DD is misinformed. First of all, vocational work centers, which were formerly known as sheltered workshops, have always been a choice available to disabled persons and their families and guardians. No one has been forced to work in those centers in order to support themselves financially.

Our national affiliate, the VOR, notes that the vocational centers and 14(c) certificates “afford workers opportunities to build self-esteem, develop friendships, and engage in their communities.” As the VOR points out, people who work at these centers “do so without fear of being fired or of having to live up to competitive standards of productivity in order to show their worth. Earned wages, though appreciated, are not the substantive reward for these individuals.”

Among the other myths that have led to the movement to eliminate the 14(c) certificates is that paying low wages to people with disabilities will harm their economic potential and will force them to remain reliant on state and federal support.

What that myth overlooks is the reality that people with I/DD have chronic and lifelong disabilities that will not change for them. The fact that they are reliant on state and federal support is not a failure on their part, but rather an indication that for some members of society, public assistance will always be needed.

But whether legislators agree or disagree with the concept of subminimum wages for the disabled, we don’t think emergency economic stimulus legislation is a proper vehicle for that debate. We are asking lawmakers and their staffs to take time to consider this issue before moving ahead with the elimination of these critically important wage certificates and vocational programs.

We are also asking you to call your members of the U.S. House and Senate to urge them to remove the provision in the stimulus bill that would eliminate the 14(c) certificates.

A contact link for your senators and representatives is here. You can copy and paste in this text on the legislators’ website contact forms.

The linked text asks lawmakers to listen to family members and guardians, such as yourself, who know what is best for their loved ones.

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