The Independence Center

As disability employment advocates broaden their focus from merely awareness to inclusion, equal pay has moved to the forefront of public discussion.

Kayla McKeon, a Capitol Hill disability employment lobbyist who has Down syndrome, talked about her work on the Transitioning to Integrated and Meaningful Employment Act during the Oct. 1 Employer Disability Awareness Forum at Library 21c in Colorado Springs. The TIME Act would require businesses to pay people with disabilities minimum wage.

This legislation is aimed mostly at the “sheltered workshop” model, which refers to segregated working environments in which people with disabilities perform menial jobs such as putting labels on jars or stuffing envelopes for hours on end — often at far less than minimum wage, according to a March 2018 post on Nonprofit Quarterly Online.

Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act authorizes employers, after receiving a certificate from the Wage and Hour Division, to pay sub-minimum wages — wages less than the federal minimum wage — to workers with disabilities.

While sheltered workshops are less common today, this legal loophole does allow them to continue functioning, said Jaime Harrell, independent living program manager at The Independence Center.

“As a community, people with disabilities really should be expected — just like anybody else in the community — to be paid equally for a job performed,” Harrell said. “Sheltered workshops do not follow that.”

- Advertisement - has 10 Colorado companies listed as sheltered workshops, including two in Colorado Springs and one in Pueblo.

Culture shift

In 2016, there were 241,265 people in America with disabilities employed at sub-minimum wage, according to “The Great Debate: The Shift From Sheltered Workshops to Competitive Integrated Employment,” published by the Iowa Department of Human Rights.

“That’s almost 250,000 people not making minimum wage, just because they have disabilities,” Harrell said. “That’s hard for the community to support that.”

Sheltered workshops were initially well-intentioned — a way for parents to keep their children out of institutions, according to the report.

“There are reasons behind having those separate environments,” Harrell said. “I’ve heard that, for example, family members have said, ‘My individual doesn’t need to be paid minimum wage. They just want to be included and contributing.’”

However, “more than 65 years later, sheltered workshops are an outdated model of segregation,” the report states.

“There are sheltered workshops that do amazing work with individuals,” Harrell said. “The argument really is that if somebody is working, their work needs to be valued and they need to be paid. We need to make sure we’re paying people what they’re worth.”

Many sheltered workshops have begun to transition from facility-based programs to community-based services, providing supported employment services — which consist of paid employment for people for whom competitive employment is unlikely, and whose disabilities mean they need intensive ongoing support to perform in a work setting.

“As a community, we are trending toward places like supported employment services, where facility-based community organizations help support individuals in employment services in a community environment,” Harrell said. “This really helps support that minimum wage pay, so it helps alleviate that sub-minimum wage support.”

“With the transition of supportive employment services in the community, there really is the support to move from sub-minimum wage to making minimum wage,” she added. “You are supporting communities, supporting individuals, supporting homes — just raising the bar a little bit more.”

Equal footing

It is not enough to simply include people with disabilities in the workplace — employers also must provide equal opportunities for those employees to attain the same level of performance as those without, said Dana Barton, director of the Rocky Mountain ADA Center.

“What they want employers to do is … use job descriptions to be clear about the essential functions of the job and to attract candidates — not weed out people with disabilities,” Barton said. “That means really looking at why the position exists, what function it performs, how highly specialized it is, and then make any reasonable accommodation that would make it possible for an individual with a disability to enjoy an equal opportunity.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act does not include a provision stipulating what a proper wage should be for employees with disabilities. What it does say, however, is that individuals with disabilities “should be integrated to the maximum extent possible, and employers should make reasonable accommodations in every area of hiring,” Barton said.

“The ADA is really broad and it’s prescriptive, not descriptive,” she said. “It doesn’t tell you how to get to an end result; it just tells you the end result that needs to happen. That wage piece may be part of how we get there.”

There are also economic incentives to paying employees with disabilities on par with their counterparts, Barton said. Organizations that hire individuals with disabilities tend to have higher employee retention rates, increased productivity, increased morale and improved customer service.

“We see that play out in what we do here at the ADA Center,” Barton said.

As far as benefits that go along with job positions, “those are very specific to the employers,” Harrell said. However, “they really should be following the law and whatever benefits they are offering, they should be offering to individuals with disabilities,” she said.

“[Employers] need to treat individuals with disabilities the exact same. Nobody is asking you or me what other benefits we get,” Barton said. “It would be like assuming that because I have a husband who works, I don’t need to make a higher wage. It’s the same sort of concept.”

Costs associated with making reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities are often minimal, Barton said. One of the most requested accommodations is a change in shift schedule, which “really costs nothing,” she said.

“I think employers get nervous about providing reasonable accommodations in the workplace,” she said. “They think that on top of paying an equal wage, they are extremely expensive. We have found that most accommodations actually cost nothing or a very small amount.”

Additionally, “employers have found that when they do pay for an accommodation, they get a $50 return in productivity for every dollar spent,” Barton said.

Nearly 80 percent of employees within the Independence Center’s independent living program are people with disabilities. and “we are a better organization because of that,” Harrell said.

“I can’t speak to the exact cost, but it’s well worth hiring people with disabilities,” she said. “When one out of five individuals in your communitiy have disabilities, and employers are not hiring individuals with disabilties, they are not looking at one-fifth of the employment pool out there. These types of things really do make a difference.”