Anyone who has a new job vividly remembers their first payday, the excitement of opening the check to finally see the fruits of your labor. But how would you react if after a week’s worth of work – you found yourself staring down at a check for a paltry $13? Well that’s what happened to Kyle, who worked in job in San Angelo packing plastic silverware in bags for hours a day.
“That’s basically illegal. That’s not minimum wage and you have to be paid minimum wage,” Kyle says. But to Kyle’s surprise, he found out that it was perfectly legal. Since Kyle lives with an intellectual disability, he isn’t protected under the same laws as everyone else. For certain types of employment, people with intellectual disabilities can make substantially lower than federally mandated minimum wage – as little as pennies on the hour. It’s a type of labor known as sheltered work-shopping, and it derives itself from an exception in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. The law says that for those with intellectual disabilities, employment can be housed in segregated working facilities, where minimum wage rates don’t apply.
It’s practice that has slowly been going out of favor in recent years. In the last two decades there have been a slew of federal court cases that have called the practice of sheltered workshops into question. In 2013, Texas jumped on the bandwagon, and introduced Senate Bill 1226, better known as Employment First. The law set forth a state policy that essentially said it was the priority of the state to promote living wages and integrated employment for those living with disabilities. However this is where practice has yet to catch up with policy. As of right now, Texas has 113 sheltered workshops that pay sub-minimum wage. According to information culled from the Department of Labor, some workshops pay as little as 1¢ an hour for creation of products such as headphones, building furniture, and janitorial services. The state not only knows abut the practice -they contribute to it. Many of the contracts awarded to such facilities come from government agencies which can range into the millions.
The Austin State Supported Living Center is a state ran living facility that has a few of these workshops on the premises. There, dozens of workers do a variety of tasks, such as stuffing envelopes, and sorting cards. Jesus Martinez manages one of the workshops at the Austin State Supported Living Center where he told me about some of their contracts. “The City of Austin has like 30,000 pieces…then Department of Corrections, Tx DOT,which is one of our biggest,” Martinez says. “They’ve got a lot of money.”
It’s this practice that not only has advocates pressing for the transitional dismantling of workshops, but lawmakers as well. State Senator Judith Zaffirini authored 2013’s Employment First Policy, she is working with stakeholders and state agencies on how exactly to tackle the issue of sheltered workshops. “Do we want it corrected overnight? Absolutely. Can it be done? Perhaps not,” Zaffirini says. “I for one am committed to do my best to end this situation as quickly as possible.”
So what’s the hold up? Well many people who are proponents of sheltered workshops believe the work provides viable opportunity, that the work is less about pay, and more about staying busy and creating a sense of purpose. Leigh Dunson is the administrator of an Austin group home; she says that for those with disabilities, getting any type of work is daunting. “We’ve had a lot of people who have been looking for jobs for years and haven’t found anything,” Dunson says. “When they’ve had the opportunity to work in a sheltered workshop situation, they’ve jumped on it.”
Proponents also raise another argument, one of practical economics. That employers have to meet certain output levels to remain viable and they argue that those with intellectual disabilities just can’t deliver – hence the low pay. David Dodson is the President of Expanco Inc., a workshop located in Ft. Worth. He said if he was forced to pay minimum wage, his company would be in dire straits. “If we were to do that here we would go out of business,” Dodson says. “That would leave a whole lot of people with nothing to do, and that’s sad.”
But even then, it’s hard to argue that people with disabilities should fall under differing laws than the general population. While the battle seems to slowly foment here in Texas, federal entities have recently jumped possibly close the law allowing employers to pay sub-minimum wages at sheltered workshops. As for Texas, no new legislation has been filed.