By: David Mank, Ph.D.**
I have spent the majority of my career researching and developing best practices related to helping people with the most significant disabilities get real jobs with real wages in the community. During my tenure, I have seen thousands of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities become successfully employed and economically self-sufficient. We know how to do this. Unfortunately, as a nation, I believe we have failed to invest sufficient resources to disseminate the information and to transform systems so that the majority of people with disabilities now successfully exiting high school and postsecondary programs can get well-paying jobs alongside their peers without disabilities. In spite of what we know works, far too many continue to languish in sheltered settings receiving way below subminimum wages, often being paid pennies on the dollar an hour. This is due to outdated federal law, section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which continues to allow providers to pay people with disabilities subminimum wages. Thirty years after the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act to prevent such discrimination, this unfair discrimination against people with disabilities must end.
That is why I am hopeful to see legislation introduced which will responsibly phase-out the use of subminimum wages for people with disabilities, in addition to other important and needed actions. The Transformation to Competitive Employment Act is designed to build capacity and improve the disability employment service system and increase opportunities for competitive integrated employment for individuals with disabilities. Key features of this bill include:
- Creating a competitive state grant program (Transformation Grants) to assist states to develop competitive integrated employment and transition from 14(c) certificate (sub-minimum wages) to competitive integrated employment.
- Creating a competitive grant program for current 14(c) certificate holders to transition their business models to support individuals with disabilities into competitive integrated employment.
- Establishing a national technical assistance center to support states and providers across the country making this transformation.
- Supporting the development of “wraparound” services, in addition to competitive integrated employment, to support an individual’s integration and community participation when they are not working.
It is important to consider these and other provisions of the bill in the context of the 2014 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) and the resulting recommendations issued in 2016 by an advisory committee created by this law. The Advisory Committee for Increasing Competitive Integrated Employment for Individuals with Disabilities (the Committee) was created by Congress in WIOA and comprised of 25 members. These members, appointed by the Secretary of Labor, included 18 citizen members and 7 federal officials. The members represented broadly diverse perspectives on employment of people with disabilities.
The citizen members included self-advocates with disabilities, representatives of national advocacy organizations, providers of rehabilitation services, experts with a background in academia or research on employment, representatives from the employer community, providers of disability employment services (including both those who do and do not pay subminimum wages using 14(c) certificates), and others with expertise on increasing competitive integrated employment.
The federal officials included: the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Disability Employment Policy, the Assistant Secretary of the Employment and Training Administration, and the Administrator of the Wage and Hour Division, all of the U.S. Department of Labor. The Committee also included: the Commissioner of the Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, the Director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Commissioner of Social Security, and the Commissioner of Rehabilitation Services.
In reality, this Committee represented a very broad range of expertise, backgrounds, knowledge bases and personal and professional perspectives about employment of people with disabilities. The charge to the Committee was twofold: advise the Secretary and Congress on ways to increase competitive integrated employment, and advise on the use of 14(c), sub-minimum wage, and other such certificates. After a twenty-one month process of substantial discussion and more than a dozen public meetings, with significant public input and testimony, a final report with recommendations was sent to Congress and the Labor Secretary in September 2016 (a summary of the report is here). All of the recommendations of the report represented the consensus of the entire Committee. Each of the recommendations was adopted by consensus and without objection. Given the broad and diverse perspectives of the members, a report and recommendations by consensus of the entire Committee is a unique deliverable in the disability community.
The heart of the final report and recommendations of the Advisory Committee can be summarized in two words: Capacity Building. These two words and this concept represent the need to support states and local communities to deliver and support competitive integrated employment for individuals with disabilities, including people currently working at sub-minimum wages under 14(c) certificates. The Committee recommended the well-designed phase-out, over time, of the use of sub-minimum wages in conjunction with capacity building at the local level to deliver competitive integrated employment, one person at a time.
The Committee heard wide ranging testimony from experts, people with disabilities and families. We heard about ways to achieve competitive integrated employment (including for people with the most significant disabilities), the work needed to develop competitive and integrated jobs, based on individual interests and abilities wherein sub-minimum wages are unnecessary, as well as the need for other services and supports to participate fully in community in addition to competitive employment. The Committee heard both success stories from people with disabilities and families, as well concerns about people with disabilities who are currently not achieving competitive integrated employment.
The Transformation to Competitive Employment Act provides specific action steps for the nation on ways to increase competitive integrated employment and proposes ways to phase out the use of sub-minimum wage over time in a way that ensures a smooth transition. It incorporates the critical recommendations of the Committee.
The Transformation to Competitive Employment Act addresses the strong desire and unmet need from people with significant disabilities for competitive integrated employment. Its focus is capacity building in communities across the nation. While the Transformation Act eliminates the use of sub-minimum wages over time, it is designed to do so responsibly and in conjunction with helping states and providers build their capacity to deliver competitive employment suited to each individual’s interest, capabilities and potential.
Given our nation’s current low unemployment rate and high need for a reliable workforce, it does not make sense to allow individuals with disabilities to languish in subminimum wage settings. Putting an end to Section 14(c) would not only benefit those with disabilities, but the entire United States through an increased workforce, additional tax revenue, and boosted workplace diversity. This can be achieved in this Congress.
By passing the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act, Congress will be putting into law an effective and comprehensive way to empower those with disabilities while still maintaining federal safety nets that protect both the people gaining their economic independence, as well as the businesses that used to employ them. Federal oversight, combined with public and private grant programs, will ensure that people with disabilities make a successful transition into competitive integrated employment and, in turn, are given the same opportunities in life that we all want – being valued, learning new skills, being part of a diverse community, and becoming economically empowered.