Sheltered Workshops: Why Do They Still Exist?

Self-advocacy organizations like the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) are leading the charge in ending the barbaric practice that is sub-minimum wage. Simply put, sub-minimum wage is a payment that is less than minimum wage. The practice was enacted in 1938 as part of the Fair Labor Standard Act (FLSA), intended for wounded veterans returning from war. Nowadays, it is reserved specifically for disabled people who don’t possess the motor function to meet the demands of “competitive” jobs. The people who get paid a sub-minimum wage work in sheltered workshops, where they complete menial tasks such as attaching buckles or separating plastic bottles. A great example of this is Goodwill, where disabled workers earn “far less than the minimum wage, while some executives earn hundreds of thousands of dollars,” according to NBC News.

video covering Goodwill by the YouTuber iilluminaughtii exposes just how despicable sheltered workshops can be toward their employees. A blind woman, Sheila Leigland, who was only working there for a little less than $4 an hour, was told by her employer that her pay would be dropped to $2.75, prompting her to leave. This was after having worked there for four years. In another article by Forbes, Leigland elaborates by saying that disabled employees are put through a test where they have to hang 100 garments with no errors in 32 minutes. Because she’s blind, it was impossible for her to look at the garments and see their sizes, but she was forced to do the test anyway. Depending on how slow the person is in completing the task, Goodwill lowers the hourly wage. This is proof that employees’ rights need to come before the business, as lowering someone’s earnings below minimum wage because of how fast or slow they work is unacceptable. 

In contrast, Goodwill International’s CEO Jim Gibbons made $434,252, according to the article. Ari Ne’eman, former President of ASAN, then says, “if you can afford to pay six- and seven-figure salaries to your executives, then you can afford to pay minimum wage to your employees.” He’s not wrong. Leigland’s wage was definitely not the lowest wage Goodwill has paid. According to the documentary, Bottom Dollars, employees have been paid as little as $2.53/hour (Grand Island, NE), $1.51/hour (Birmingham, AL), $0.40/hour (Branford, CT), and $0.02 (Cincinnati, OH). With a wage as little as two pennies, while executives are making over six figures, there is no denying that they perceive disabled employees as not deserving the same amount of money as everyone else. 

A fair alternative that iilluminaughtii poses in the video is that if employers need a greater motivation to hire disabled employees, they should expand the tax breaks or tax incentives offered when hiring such people. The workers can also get paid a livable wage, making it a win-win scenario. 

To get to a point where all disabled people can be employed, and with a livable wage, a great deal of societal change needs to be formulated. It is not a thing that can happen overnight, as the institutions that have upheld this system have been in place for decades without going unchallenged. It’s only in recent years that such a change does not seem so distant. However, our society still has a long way to go until all disabled people, no matter how their disability manifests, until every single person can be hired while also making a livable wage.

Sub-minimum wage and sheltered workshops are one of many systems plaguing the disabled community. If it becomes dismantled, that will serve as a steppingstone for other systems which negatively affect us to dissipate in the near future. Only time will tell. For the time being, spreading awareness and petitioning elected officials will get us to where we need to be: a world where disabled people are paid the same as everyone else. 

TREMG news

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