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Common Dreams

How Being Disabled Means Your Boss can Suppress Your Wages

An outdated law is allowing employers to pay disabled workers far below minimum wage

Sarah Lazare, staff writer

Prominent U.S. charities, businesses, and even high schools, are paying disabled workers far below minimum wage—in some cases a fraction of a dollar per hour—thanks to a long-standing law that says employers can suppress wages because of disability.

In an ironic twist, some of the the employers who take advantage of this law—such as Goodwill Industries—have built their reputations on helping the 'needy.'

The 1938 law allows employers to petition the U.S. Department of Labor to pay disabled workers below minimum wage if the employer claims the worker's 'productive capacity is impaired' by disability.

The petition declares that employers can pay 'special minimum wages' to people with disabilities that include 'blindness, mental illness, mental retardation, cerebral palsy, alcoholism and drug addiction'.

There is no set minimum for this 'special minimum wage': if the petition is granted, employers can pay as little as they want.

A majority of those who petition for low wages are nonprofit organizations. However, a public list shows that the number of for-profit businesses that pay disabled people below minimum wage is not small and includes big names such as Ramada Inn, Holiday Inn, McDonald's, and 7 Eleven. High Schools and universities are also numbered among institutions that petition to suppress wages for disabled people


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The result? Some disabled workers make as little as 22, 38, and 41 cents per hour.

NBC reports that disabled Goodwill employees are outraged at what they call a civil rights disaster at the hands of an employer that is not short on money:

"If they really do pay the CEO of Goodwill three-quarters of a million dollars, they certainly can pay me more than they're paying," said Harold Leigland, who is legally blind and hangs clothes at a Goodwill in Great Falls, Montana for less than minimum wage.

"It's a question of civil rights," added his wife, Sheila, blind from birth, who quit her job at the same Goodwill store when her already low wage was cut further. "I feel like a second-class citizen. And I hate it."


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