Now Let’s Hear From the Rest of Them

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Andrew Pulrang

More like this please!

Hillary Clinton just took a specific position on a disability issue that millions of disabled voters and disability activists care about: ending payment of subminimum wage. She came out squarely against “tiered minimum wages,” including the “tipped wage” (in the restaurant industry), and the “legal loopholes” that currently allow payment of subminimum wages for some disabled workers, under Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Clinton said this in response to a question from a man in the audience who identified himself as autistic, at a speech Clinton was giving about the Supreme Court. Watch video of her remarks here.

The 14(c) program allows certain employers to pay certain workers with disabilities less than minimum wage … From a few dollars to a few pennies an hour … Based on the idea that people with some disabilities are unable to work at “normal” capacity and quality, and therefore should be paid only a percentage of what they would ordinarily be paid in a comparable job.

This exception to Federal minimum wage rules started in the 1930s, and is supposed to encourage employers to hire disabled people, especially those with intellectual disabilities. In practice, this mostly takes place in various kinds of sheltered workshops, workplaces isolated from the community, where all of the laborers are disabled people deemed unable to work in “regular” jobs, and supervised in setting that are more like rehabilitation or custodial care programs than actual jobs. For a long time, disability activists have argued strenuously for an end to sheltered workshops, but even more so for an end to paying disabled workers less than minimum wage. Despite arguments about ability and work capacity, it increasingly seems unfair and unnecessary to pay less than minimum wage to anyone who puts in productive work time in what they are told is an honorable, productive job. Some agencies running these programs have voluntarily upped their wages to the Federal minimum and above, and the National Council on Disability has recommended ending the 14(c) program altogether.

Still, while ending subminimum wage is near the top of the disability community’s priority list, the issue is virtually unknown to anyone outside disability culture and activism. Plus, many people connected with the disability community, particularly families, still support the practice, and fear that ending it would put disabled people out of work and hurt the therapeutic programs that are supposed to help them. Ending the subminimum wage seems obviously right, but the practice does have its defenders.

So, a Presidential candidate taking a stand on this issue is a little more significant than a micro-targeted pander to an obscure special interest. Rather, it is a meaningful stance on one of the most fundamental disability policy questions in active debate right now, not to mention a glaring injustice festering away in employment law overall. It’s also exactly the kind of thing we’ve been waiting for … a Presidential candidate staking out a specific stand on a real, substantive disability issue that has actual pros and cons, and calls for a bit of political courage. It’s a bonus that Clinton took what so many disability activists would say is the “right” position on the issue.

Of course, the next obvious question is: where does Bernie Sanders stand? Does he oppose subminimum wage too? Has he gone out of his way to say so? If not, will he?

At this point, it looks like Sanders hasn’t specifically addressed subminimum wage for people with disabilities. We may soon see a clip or a quote similar to Clinton’s, with Sanders taking a similar stand, but we haven’t seen it yet. There’s nothing on Sanders’ website about it, aside from a general commitment to raise the general minimum wage to $15 per hour nationwide. Then again, there’s nothing about the issue on Hillary Clinton’s website, either, and it’s possible she only took a stand at all this week because someone happened to ask.

Given what we know about Bernie Sanders, it’s hard to imagine he would actually support the current 14(c) program, but he needs to say it, clearly and specifically. Bernie can’t simply rely on his progressive bona fides with disabled voters, any more than Hillary can. Good, well-meaning people with great ideas mess up on disability issues all the time. You have to be specific. When it comes to disability issues, good will and a track record aren’t enough.

And what about Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich? I suspect they would favor hanging on to subminimum wage, since they are all against increasing the minimum wage overall, and some Republicans have specifically advocated using selectively lower minimum wages as a way to spur entry-level and youth employment. But we can’t assume. Republicans have disabled kids, brothers, sisters, and spouses, too, and especially this year, it’s hard to predict their positions on such specific policy issues. Either way though, each of the three remaining Republican candidates should declare their positions on the subminimum wage.

I have already seen some Facebook and Twitter comments, from disabled people, pooh-poohing Hillary’s statement, saying she’s all talk and no action, or she’s just pandering, or she’s untrustworthy, so who cares?

I disagree, and not because I’m a die-hard Clinton supporter. For what it’s worth, I’m undecided right now … and with the New York Primary coming up on April 19, I’d better decide soon! I think Hillary’s statement is a very big deal. It’s exactly the kind of disability talk we want from candidates … not 3-second shout-outs, or vague pledges of “support,” but real stands on issues that uniquely affect Americans with disabilities.

I applaud Senator Clinton for her statement. I hope to hear from the other candidates, too. I also applaud the autistic man who asked Clinton the question. And I hope to see more disabled people in more audiences, and on more social media platforms, ask more questions like this, to force the remaining Presidential candidates to take meaningful stands on disability issues we really care about.

Maybe the next question will come from you.

Contact: Andrew Pulrang