Spotlight On: Subminimum Wages and The Fair Labor Standards Act

  Photo/TownPost Network via Flickr/

Photo/TownPost Network via Flickr/

Last week, I drove an extra two miles farther than my usual garden nursery to try a new one that, I had heard, actively supported hiring a diverse group of workers...  Mostly because people with disabilities were included in that group.  See, something was just recently brought to my attention that I never thought could fly in this day of age: a population of workers with cognitive and/or physical disabilities are not required to be paid the standard minimum wages.  And, yes, this includes when they’re working the same position as someone who IS earning minimum wage.

The concept behind this federal exception started out with great intentions, but since then (and like a lot of aspects within the profitable world, unfortunately), there’s been some exploitation within that opportunity.  Here’s a little night music: Back in 1938 when The USofA was rebuilding our crumbled economic structure post-depression, the Fair Labor Standards Act came into play with a Section 14 (c) that allowed companies to hold a certificate in order to “train” people with severe disabilities and help them ease into/return to the workforce grind.  Mostly, this was in consideration and aimed towards the returning Veterans and for temporary employment.  These companies were not required to pay full wages to these training workers.  Unfortunately, as this section grew older, abuse cases came about due to there not being a strong definition of limitations within it, i.e.- Dan Barry’s, “The ‘Boys’ in the Bunkhouse,” March 9th, 2014.

 A cloudy afternoon spent at Present Perfect Nursery in Pasadena, CA

A cloudy afternoon spent at Present Perfect Nursery in Pasadena, CA

If this section/act is sounding oddly familiar to you, it’s probably because you also heard about it in regards to the Goodwill Industries (and high five to you for being waaaay more aware than me).  In 2013, their use of the 14 (c) certificate made national news with many different reports of abuse of the system including some workers stating that, at times, they were only making $0.22 per hour. 

Now, even with that said, I think we can all agree that Goodwill has actually held up to their name well.  They’ve done A LOT of good and created countless jobs for people who, typically, would have been more challenged to find a similar position.  Also, well, recycled goods… need I say more?  But $0.22 per HOUR?!  A full shift of work wouldn’t even cover the cost of my shower this morning (which was obviously very quick for multiple reasons including that A) I live in Los Angeles during a drought and B) I also really like bodies of water and the things that are supported by them).

Even with these accounts, there is still some support for these methods used by them.  The fluctuating wage rates are determined by testing individuals with disabilities every six months and, at which, a worker’s rate of efficiency is used to determine what percentage of the standard wages they will receive.  Some argue that that's fair and, since the population that fall under this section are receiving governmental benefits, that the lowered wages are really just a balance of that as well.  Some people also worry that, without these employment opportunities, people with severe disabilities would be left with fewer options of day programs and be left with less social interactions.

Counter arguments include calculations of the lowered wages with the disability benefits and how the final amount would still not bring it anywhere close enough to minimum wage.  Also, the pretty obvious degradation and exploitation of a population who is employed under such testing tactics.  Personally, to think that employees are shown their value to a company by being told their percentage of efficiency compared to their neighboring employee disgusts and stuns me that such a thing is even still legal.

  The Goodwill Industries Outlet of Glassell Park, Los Angeles, CA

The Goodwill Industries Outlet of Glassell Park, Los Angeles, CA

Luckily, the use of this section is quickly dying out.  Many Goodwill branches are opting out of their certification and several states have already chosen to no longer allow this practice.  In early 2014, an Executive Order was signed by President Obama to raise minimum wages within all federal workers to $10.10 with the inclusion of coverage to workers under Section 14 (c) and, later that same year, Congress passed the WIOA, which greatly increased individuals with disabilities’ access to work possibilities- this also has assisted in creating additional options outside of day programs.  AND, in the past year, Congressman Gregg Harper (R-MS) introduced a bill to the House of Representatives to hopefully phase out section 14 (c) entirely in the next three years with the TIME Act

Bottom line: People with severe cognitive and physical disabilities have been exploited by a well-intended, but outdated section of an act and, even though it has still not been completely absolved, the foundation of a solution has been laid and awareness and progress are both quickly growing to afford more equal rights and opportunities to this population.  BOOM!


Here's some options of how you can choose more with this topic:

·      Opt for a different non-profit when you’re donating items other than with your local Goodwill until ALL branches are operating under better ethics- Salvation Army, Big Brother Big Sister, local women’s/children’s shelters, local thrift stores, etc…

·      Find your local workforces that fairly support workers with disabilities and consider making one trade in your routine for them- I had a moment that made me realize the value and possibility of our society's diversity and would love to make more changes in the future as I gain the ability and time to.

·      If further inclined, you can sign an online petition or use one of these letters of support to assist with petitioning to your local Congressman for a repeal of Section 14 (c) of the FLSA.


Do you have additional thoughts or suggestions?  We'd love to hear them- leave them below and let us know how you're planning your #smallvictory this week!


Special props to reader Jessica Sadowsky for her input and concern for this issue!  Throw your hands in the air for being a team player!  (Those are the words, right?)