Updated: Oct 6, 2021
For most people today, Labor Day is usually just a celebration that signifies the end of summer, the start of school, and a long weekend that provides a good time to grill outside with family and friends. But the holiday is truly a celebration of a movement that affects the lives of everyone today.
When the US entered the Industrial Revolution, workdays became the purpose of a person’s life. Most people worked over 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for pay that was still barely meeting their personal needs. These conditions led to the 19th-century labor movement, where industrial workers created unions to fight for better work environments.
Workers felt that conditions were unfair and unsafe. They wanted more free time, better wages, and healthier workspaces.
This powerful movement that we celebrate with a holiday every single year ended up creating the foundation for labor laws as we know them today. It’s the basis for how we navigate employment in the US.
In 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) as a response to the movement, which got rid of child labor and created minimum wage, the 40-hour workweek, and even health benefits.
But there was one major problem with this law that is affecting the lives of thousands of people today: it mostly left out people with disabilities.
The FSLA allows sheltered workshop employees to be paid less than minimum wage (a.k.a. subminimum wage), which is what’s currently happening to people with disabilities all over the country.
Sheltered workshops are segregated workspaces that were created over 100 years ago for disabled people. People argue that these workshops create safe spaces for people with disabilities to be employed.
While having a safe workspace might sound ideal, it isn’t all that it’s chalked up to be. Those who work in sheltered workshops are often performing menial tasks, like shredding paper, without the resources to learn new skills, move up in the workplace, or transfer to a non-segregated environment. And many of these people are only being paid $3.50 an hour, which is perfectly legal under the FSLA even though federal minimum wage is currently $7.25.
The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act made it so workers with disabilities have better opportunities and employers are required to make reasonable accommodations, but it still didn’t address this FLSA loophole. And although there are states across the country that have ended sheltered workshops and eliminated subminimum wage, the federal law still allows this to happen. And it is happening to people all over the country.
People with disabilities already struggle with finding employment. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 17.9 percent of persons with a disability were employed in 2020, in comparison to 61.8 percent of those without a disability. And many of those disabled workers only work part-time or are subjected to these workshops.
Segregation is not the answer. All people, including those with disabilities, deserve the opportunity to live, learn, and work alongside their peers in a community that provides support to address their accessibility needs. Disabled workers deserve the right to have jobs that fulfill them, teach them new skills that will allow them to progress, and pay them a living wage.
Luckily, the Biden Administration has proposed doing away with subminimum wage, which will finally end the nearly-century long period where this was legal and will hopefully open the door to equitable job opportunities in inclusive work environments for everyone.
Kayla Kingston is the Communications Specialist for MCIE. A recent graduate of the University of Dayton, she loves reading, writing, and supporting all things inclusion.