Making the Workplace Work
Dear ABILITY Readers,
For too long, people with disabilities have been vulnerable to exploitation in the workplace. Recently, we got a particularly shocking wake-up call. That’s when Henry’s Turkey Services in Atalissa, IA, was accused of paying employees with intellectual disabilities only $60 a month, even though they were working full time or nearly full time processing turkeys.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the company is alleged to have kept most of those workers’ wages and government benefits in exchange for room, board and “caretaking” at a company bunkhouse. Collectively, the pay of 21 men was docked by as much as $40,000 a month to live in a ramshackle building, for which their employer paid only $600 a month rent. Some of these workers are alleged to have been in this situation for perhaps as long as 20 or 30 years, according to media reports.
The fact that these workers with disabilities could be taken advantage of for as long as three decades without meaningful oversight or intervention by federal, state, or local authorities is unconscionable.
Clearly, there’s been a breakdown in the U.S. Department of Labor’s oversight of the 14(c) program, which allows employers to pay persons with disabilities less than minimum wage, based on productivity, and of a related program that allows employers to deduct the cost of providing food, lodging, and other services from those employees’ paychecks.
Recently, I chaired a hearing in the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to assess the weaknesses in the current law as well as the lack of oversight that contributed to the above abuses. I intend to follow up with changes that will prevent and/or severely punish such abuses in the future.
One of the problems we’ve identified is that nationwide, within the 14(c) sub-minimum wage program, there are only three compliance officers to perform the annual review of roughly 2,500 renewal certificates for 5,600 employers and their 424,000 workers with disabilities, according to the Government Accountability Office. There is also precious little supervision by the DOL of the actual workplaces.
We have a responsibility to fix the laws that make worker exploitation possible. At the federal level, I intend to pursue legislation to require employers to inform workers about paycheck deductions for room and board, and to require workers—or their families, in the case of dependent workers—to agree, in writing, to the deductions ahead of time. We need to outlaw housing deductions that are not approved in advance by the U.S. Department of Labor.
We must require that employees with disabilities be certified as eligible for the special minimum wage program, and that work sites be inspected before employers are certified to participate in the program. We should also reinstate a wage floor, which we had prior to 1986.
We need stricter penalties for employers who violate the law, and we need more effective enforcement of the law. Any employer who allows its special minimum wage certificate to lapse should trigger followup by the DOL. And we need to be especially vigilant about jobs in industries in which abuses have historically been widespread.
Finally, we need to increase information sharing. The federal government funds protection and advocacy (P&A) programs in each state to safeguard people with disabilities. Let’s make sure that these programs—as well as appropriate state officials— stay informed about sub-minimum wage employers so they can provide additional oversight in this matter.
I have little doubt that the abuses documented in Atalissa are also occurring unchecked at other worksites around the nation. We have a responsibility to protect individuals with disabilities and other vulnerable people in the workplace.
Senator Tom Harkin