Essential Pittsburgh
6:17 pm
Thu July 31, 2014

Thousands of Disabled Workers Legally Paid Sub-Minimum Wage

Autumn Self, a 26-year-old blind woman, sorts papers at the Westmoreland County Blind Association in Greensburg. She's worked for below minimum wage there for six years. "I think this is the only job I could have," she said.
Autumn Self, a 26-year-old blind woman, sorts papers at the Westmoreland County Blind Association in Greensburg. She's worked for below minimum wage there for six years. "I think this is the only job I could have," she said.
Credit Martha Rial / PublicSource

About 13,000 disabled Pennsylvania workers are being paid far below minimum wage, earning an average of $2.40 an hour in legal sub-minimum wages, according to a recent PublicSource article by Halle Stockton.

Does this practice provide opportunities for people who wouldn't otherwise have a job? Or does it exploit those who could work for minimum wage?

Stockton says these workers are legally paid sub-minimum wages and are supervised by mostly non-disabled workers. Stockton says the working conditions can range from work programs on beautiful campuses, to those of industrial settings.

No matter the conditions, however, Stockton says the pay is based on “pieces.”

“This is all piecework. You get paid for every box of paper you shred; you get paid twenty cents. Or every jewelry box, eleven cents. So, these supervisors are watching and recording that. This person completed three this hour, or completed four, and that’s what translates into your paycheck.”

Curtis Decker is the Executive Director of the National Disability Rights Network. He says people don’t apply for jobs they don’t have the skill set for. Decker does not approve of these sub-minimum wage programs but still believes people need the training so they can realize their greater potential.

“We need to expose people gradually, show them what the alternatives are. We need to provide training and make sure that there’s jobs that fit the person’s capabilities.”

Charlotte Swenson is the mother of a worker with Down syndrome who is paid sub-minimum wage. Unlike Decker, she supports these programs. Her daughter Teresa works for the Bucks County Nonprofit Associated Production Services, a Philadelphia company that employs many disabled workers and pays them sub-minimum wages.

Swenson supports the program as is, saying it gives her daughter a sense of self-worth.

“If a person is able and willing and can manage working in competitive employment, I think that’s wonderful. But, I think there is a need for the shelter workshop, not only for those with mental, intellectual disabilities, but... also mental health problems, which can pose problems out in the competitive employment world. So, I think there is a need for both efforts, but I would not like to see one take place of another. One shoe size does not fit everyone, and neither does one position in providing them a place to work.”