Achieving Fair Pay and Dignity for Workers with Disabilities

Achieving Fair Pay and Dignity for Workers with Disabilities

Until July 1, 2023, many workers with disabilities across the Commonwealth would wake up in the morning and head to work, only to receive lower pay than their coworkers and counterparts in the community, despite performing the same job. This reality was due to the subminimum wage law provision 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), colloquially known as 14(c).

However, earlier this year, the General Assembly acted unanimously with conviction and leadership in a bipartisan effort to phase out this practice and ensure that every Virginian is treated with dignity and paid fairly for a full day's work.

Some still argue that with 14(c) disabled workers can pursue job opportunities that provide dignity, community, and purpose, and gives employers the chance to support them. Yet, this perspective, although it sounds reasonable on its face, is misguided as it conveys the message to these workers that their labor is worth less than that of their non-disabled colleagues. It implies that the resources Virginia has received to support their employment would be better spent paying them significantly less.

According to CNBC's 2023 ranking report, Virginia is ranked #2 among all 50 states for its business-friendly environment. We firmly believe in the values of entrepreneurship, hard work, economic leadership, and financial independence.

Nevertheless, under this law, half of the disabled workers in 14(c) employment earn less than $3.50 per hour, with the majority of them having intellectual or developmental disabilities. Even more concerning, a recent report revealed that between 2012 and 2021, the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division (WHD) identified over $15 million in unpaid back wages owed to more than 73,500 14(c) employees due to employers' failure to adequately compensate them.

There are still proponents of 14(c) who argue that abolishing this law will result in job losses for people with disabilities and eliminate a pathway to employment. However, the Department of Labor has recently reported an all-time high in employment for individuals with disabilities. These statistics come after significant efforts by the federal government, states, and organizations holding a 14(c) certificate to reduce employment under 14(c). Service providers and businesses have embraced alternative employment arrangements and expanded their capacity to provide competitive pay within the community. Consequently, the number of individuals paid under a 14(c) certificate has decreased by tens of thousands, while the employment rates for people with disabilities continue to rise.

The numbers and the voices of disability advocates tell a different story. An essential aspect of shaping policies that impact Virginians with disabilities involves genuinely listening to their stories and understanding their perspectives. As a collective body with a profound responsibility to all citizens, the General Assembly has worked thoughtfully and intentionally to discard the nearly-century-old mindset that has hindered disabled workers from obtaining meaningful, well-compensated employment. Our path forward as a Commonwealth should consistently prioritize policies that encourage dignified work and recognize its contribution to our economy. This entails investing in our people through productive employment and community support services.