PA disability rights group: Eliminate subminimum wages for workers with disabilities

The Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania is calling for systemic changes in how people with disabilities are employed.

The group’s board of directors issued a white paper Friday calling for the elimination of subminimum wages paid to workers with disabilities and for a ban on creating new sheltered workshops.

The Disability Rights Network cites a 2014 PublicSource investigation throughout its white paper.

PublicSource’s analysis of federal records revealed that about 13,000 Pennsylvanians with disabilities were being paid an average of $2.40, mostly in sheltered workshops. We also found that employers weren’t always following the rules, which led to some workers being paid even less.

Critics of the workshops say they are segregated settings in which people with disabilities are given menial tasks that provide little to no training in jobs that could get them into the mainstream workforce.

Sheltered workshops and the provision to pay people with disabilities below the federal minimum wage were created in the Depression Era, when it was thought that the system would incentivize employers to hire people with disabilities and lead to more integration.

“The lack of employment at a living wage has severe consequences,” [said Lucille] Piggott-Prawl, [chair of the network board’s public policy committee].  “Pennsylvanians with disabilities are two to three times more likely to live in poverty than those who do not have disabilities.  Employment leads to independence, self-sufficiency, and self-worth.  All people with disabilities should have a choice to select meaningful employment at a living wage.”

The group also argues that there is too little funding for state agencies that are supposed to be preparing people with disabilities for integrated jobs and a lack of regulations that could make it a priority.

The solutions the board recommends include:

● No new sheltered workshops and a moratorium on new referrals to already existing sheltered employment settings by school districts, intermediate units, Department of Human Services, Department of Labor and Industry and others.

● Issuance of an Employment First Executive Order and enactment of Employment First legislation in Pennsylvania.

● Full implementation of federal regulations that require home and community-based services to be provided in integrated settings.

● Study and promotion of best practices and positive models for community employment at a living wage.

Reach Halle Stockton at 412-315-0263 or at hstockton@publicsource.org. Follow her on Twitter @HalleStockton.