U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton and U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman trekked down to Arkadelphia the other day to lament the coming closure of the Honeycomb Restaurant in Arkadelphia, which employs developmentally disabled people at subminimum wages. New wage and hour rules that took effect in July don’t allow such subpar wages unless the institutions that employ such workers can show they are making regular and sincere efforts to get the workers trained for more complete integration into mainstream work.
Cotton and Westerman decried “burdensome government regulation” and vowed to do something about it.
What Cotton and Westerman didn’t tell the various TV stations that reported this sad story was that the rules were a direct result of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act passed by Congress and signed by the president. Cotton voted for the legislation. Westerman was not yet in the House but he likely would have voted for it, too. The Republicans supported the bill, most Democrats opposed it.
Here’s an explanation of the new rules — required by federal law remember — that made it harder for so-called “sheltered worskshops” to employ people continuously for far less than the $7.25 minimum wage.
This is a much broader story than one restaurant in Arkadelphia, but affects hundreds of employers all over the country. An article in Minneapolis details the difficulties in putting the new rules in place, with some conflicting guidance from multiple agencies with a role. Forget for a moment, the morass of rules, said the op-ed writer:
We cannot lose sight of the real reason for all of this. It’s not about programs, policies, regulations or rules. It’s about giving people with disabilities, including those with the most significant disabilities, a true and real choice about how and where they want to live, whether and where they want to work. It’s about providing the opportunity, as envisioned in the goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act, for full inclusion in the communities of their choice.
It won’t stop Tom Cotton and Bruce Westerman from turning it into a talking point. But it might be well if a few more people are aware what a line of bull they’re slinging.
They’d do well to read some background about how these new rules come from a long-delayed attention to the poor wages paid the disabled, while more attention has been paid to wages of other workers. The minimum wage exemption for sheltered workshops not only didn’t keep pace over the years, it lost ground.
When the 14c exemption was first passed, it required that disabled employees in competitive industries earn at least 75% of the minimum wage. In 1966, that requirement dropped to 50%, and in 1986, the floor was removed altogether. Fifteen years later, a report by the Government Accountability Office found that so-called sub-minimum wage workers earned on average $2.15 an hour. In 2011, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that people with disabilities are three times more likely to live in poverty, and only 18.7% of people with disabilities participate in the workforce, compared to 68.3% of non-disabled individuals.
The 14c program is intended to provide temporary employment for disabled workers and train them to enter a normal work environment, yet the GAO found that less than 5% of the disabled workers in the program ever leave it for a job in the broader community.
It is a complicated story. It’s not simply about a nice little restaurant running on subpar wages meanly closed by dirty federal bureaucrats. The situation arose, in fact, from a movement that believed such workers deserve better.