Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has proven to be one of the nation’s most effective advocates for workers and their financial security; but we think she’s wrong in charging that persons with intellectual and other developmental disabilities are being exploited by work programs that pay them a subminimum wage.
Warren is leading an effort in Congress to eliminate waivers that have allowed employers to pay a subminimum wage to disabled persons who are hired by employers in mainstream work settings. Warren alleges that payment of subminimum wages under the so-called 14(c) certificates or waivers is exploitative and discriminatory.
We would agree that for disabled people with normal intellectual functioning, payment of subminimum wages is exploitative and unnecessarily discriminatory; but a distinction needs to be made in the case of persons who have intellectual or other developmental disabilities that severely limit cognitive functioning.
In not making this distinction in calling for the elimination of the subminimum wage waivers, Warren is making the same well-intentioned mistake that many people in the advocacy community have made. That mistake is to assume that all developmentally disabled people are exactly the same as non-disabled people in terms of their employment potential and, even more importantly, their employment aspirations.
Those assumptions overlook a number of realities, including the fact that virtually all developmentally disabled persons who are placed in those work programs receive government assistance in some form for residential care, day care, or other services. Unlike non-disabled persons, most, if not all, individuals with significantly impaired cognition are not seeking to support themselves financially through work. They are seeking to occupy their time with activities that are meaningful and satisfying to them.
As the brother of an intellectually disabled person noted to me, his brother has no understanding of the concept of money, and wouldn’t know or be able to appreciate whether he was paid a minimum wage rate or not.
In an April 23 letter to U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, Warren and six other senators attempted to link payment of subminimum wages to problems of abuse and poor work conditions in work settings for people with developmental disabilities. The letter cited four instances in which disabled persons were forced to work in sweatshop-like conditions, including a case in Iowa in which intellectually disabled men were working in a turkey processing plant for little or no wages and were subjected to verbal and physical abuse and unsanitary conditions.
But as is the case with abuse or poor conditions in any care-related or work setting, the instances cited in Warren’s letter appear to be the result of poor governmental oversight of those programs. Those problems could have been avoided or could be rectified with proper oversight. The problems were not necessarily the result of payment of subminimum wages.
Moreover, citing isolated instances of abuse in specific work settings doesn’t prove it is a problem in all work settings. In fact, we have not heard of any instances of such exploitation or abuse occurring in sheltered workshops or other work activity programs in Massachusetts.
We have made a number of attempts to contact Warren about this issue. I left separate voicemail messages since Monday of this week with Warren’s Washington and Boston Senate offices. On Monday, I also posted what was essentially this blog post on her website contact page, and asked if she or her staff would respond. To date, I’ve gotten no response and no call back.
The unfortunate impact of the effort to prohibit employers from paying subminimum wages to developmentally disabled people is that rather than paying them higher wages, most employers choose not to employ them. So the end result is that these disabled individuals miss out on satisfying and meaningful ways to occupy their time.
As we have reported, DDS data show that the number of developmentally disabled persons being placed in integrated or mainstream employment paying at least the minimum wage in Massachusetts has been steadily dropping in the past few years.
During Fiscal Year 2016, a high of 509 clients in the Department of Developmental Services system newly started working in mainstream jobs. That number dropped to 127 clients entering integrated employment during Fiscal 2017, and to a net increase of only 98 clients during Fiscal 2018.
We are assuming that demand for these mainstream jobs remains high, possibly in the thousands. That there was a net increase of less than 100 developmentally disabled persons in integrated employment in Fiscal 2018 appears to show that the administration has been unable to find jobs for people who want them.
Promises in closing sheltered workshops haven’t been kept
In 2014, the administration of then Governor Deval Patrick began closing sheltered workshops in Massachusetts that provided developmentally disabled persons with piecework activities because those facilities supposedly segregated those persons from their non-disabled peers and paid them less than minimum wage. The Baker administration followed that same policy, ultimately closing all remaining workshops as of the fall of 2016.
The plan of both administrations was to provide training to those former workshop participants and place them in mainstream workforce settings along with supports that would help them to function in those settings.
We expressed concerns at the time, however, that the workshop closure policy was being pursued without knowing, among other things, whether sufficient jobs existed in the private sector for all of those former workshop participants and others who want jobs.
Unfortunately, our concerns have proved to be well founded. Instead of being placed in mainstream or integrated jobs, the vast majority of the former sheltered workshop participants have ended up in DDS-funded Community Based Day Supports (CBDS) programs, which offer little or no work opportunities, and have left many of those people frustrated and bored.
DDS data also show that the DDS day program population increased by 81% from Fiscal 2014 through 2018 in Massachusetts while integrated job placements increased by only 19%. The chart below reflects this trend and illustrates the fact that the total day program population in the DDS system has caught up with and even surpassed the total number of departmental clients in integrated employment since Fiscal 2014.
Barbara Govoni, the mother of one former sheltered workshop participant, is continuing to advocate for legislation that would allow for the return of piecework activities in her son’s CBDS program.
Direct care workers are the ones who are exploited
Ultimately, Senator Warren’s concern about exploitation is misplaced. It is not the developmentally disabled who are exploited by subminimum wages. Rather, it is the people who are hired by DDS-funded providers to care for them who are usually the victims of systematic exploitation in this field.
As we have noted, direct-care workers in the DDS system, who do have to work in order to feed themselves and their families, are the ones who Senator Warren and other advocates for the disabled should be concerned about.
When direct-care workers are underpaid, it is not only they and their families who suffer, but the very people who depend on their services who suffer as well from substandard care. Paying developmentally disabled people less than minimum wage as part of their work programs doesn’t harm them. Paying their caregivers less than a living wage does.