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So for eighty two years, American labor law has had a carve-out for some workers with disabilities. They can be paid less than minimum wage. This was meant to encourage employment of more people. But today, a top federal civil rights watchdog says the exemption should end because it's been trapping workers in job programs that they call exploitative and discriminatory. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.
ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Jerry D'Agostino had a job but couldn't afford a few things he wanted to do, like go out to eat sometimes.
JERRY D'AGOSTINO: Go to the movies and go to events
SELYUKH: He was working alongside other people with disabilities at a center in Rhode Island doing what he calls benchwork, rote tasks like fitting rings into heating tubes, packaging ice packs, assembling boxes for jewelry.
D'AGOSTINO: If I remember correctly, my first paycheck was only 12 bucks. I just questioned myself as, you know - I really don't want to keep doing benchwork for my whole life.
SELYUKH: D'Agostino now works at a supermarket where his paycheck is a lot more than $12 total. But he spent years in that center which paid him below minimum wage thanks to that carve-out in the labor law. Centers like that are often called sheltered workshops because they keep people with disabilities in a separate cluster. Their pay is estimated to average $3.34 an hour. To calculate individual pay, the centers regularly time their workers, comparing how fast they do tasks to an experienced non-disabled worker - half as fast, half the pay. Now, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights says this program and the law should be phased out.
CATHERINE LHAMON: In short, the program doesn't work. And it is designed in a way that it can't work.
SELYUKH: Catherine Lhamon chairs the commission. She says instead of expanding opportunities, the programs limit them, don't really prepare people for work in the community, jobs with regular wages.
LHAMON: I was ashamed of the ways that we have operated now over eight decades, a federal assumption that people with disabilities are less capable of full employment than people without disabilities.
SELYUKH: A lot of data are missing about subminimum wage programs, including how many people they employ. Estimates range from 100,000 to four times that. Most have intellectual and developmental disabilities. Commonly, the programs are run by nonprofits. They get state and federal money to support these jobs. Many of them have government contracts. And their most vocal supporters are some of the workers' families who want the programs to remain an option, a safe environment for relatives with disabilities. One mother, Linda Hau, from Wisconsin testified before the Civil Rights Commission in November.
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LINDA HAU: We are parents with our sons' best interest at heart. Any suggestion that we would allow him to be taken advantage of or discriminated against is an insult.
SELYUKH: Families like hers helped workshops flood the commission with a record number of comments asking to let the programs be. Some described workers with, quote, "severe disabilities," worried about where they'd go. Lhamon says that is why her agency is recommending a careful, gradual phase out. Disability rights advocates have wanted such a phase out for years. They point to success stories of people thriving outside of the systems that underestimated them. Anil Lewis, who now fights against sheltered workshops at the National Federation of the Blind, testified about his past work running one, thinking he was doing the right thing.
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ANIL LEWIS: And because of that misguided compassion, these individuals spent a significant part of their lives wasting away in that workshop - making money for our center, but wasting away. And I am just sitting here really feeling sad about what I perpetuated because there is a better alternative.
SELYUKH: Four states have abolished sheltered workshops to support more jobs in the community. Seven states have moved to end wages below the minimum. Several federal bills trying to do so on a national level have so far failed.
Alina Selyukh, NPR News, Washington.
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