The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour for 14 years — a time period during which mere adjustments for inflation would now have it over $10.
Congress isn’t expected to act on raising that wage anytime soon, so many municipalities and states — like New York — have taken matters into their own hands. New York City and Long Island both have a $15 minimum wage, as does Westchester County. Recently, upstate New York rose to $14.20.
In fact, 27 states raised their minimum wage at the beginning of 2023, according to the National Employment Law Project, with new baselines ranging from $9.95 in states like Montana to $15.74 in Washington state.
We hear a lot about the minimum wage. What we don’t ever talk about is something that many may not even know exists: the subminimum wage.
It’s real, and it has been since the Fair Labor Standards Act, which first established a federal minimum wage, was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1938. Many have credited the law with helping to guide the United States out of the Great Depression. And the framework of the Fair Labor Standards Act — 40-hour work weeks, child labor restrictions, extra pay for overtime — fuels our labor economy to this day.
But if you look closely at the law — particularly at Section 14(c) — you might be surprised to learn that not everyone is eligible for the minimum wage. Even at $7.25. It allows employers to apply for a certificate from the federal government to pay less than minimum wage to workers with disabilities.
It’s an archaic law based on an archaic way of thinking when it comes to people with disabilities.
When the legislation was first passed, “it was assumed that a worker with a disability was less productive than a non-disabled worker,” former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge wrote in a 2021 opinion piece in USA Today.
“In retrospect, it was a flawed assumption. We want to be fair to the intent of the original legislation, which was to provide individuals with disabilities an opportunity to enter the workforce.”
When the former Pennsylvania governor wrote those words, he was nearing the end of a long chairmanship of the National Organization on Disability, an advocacy group for a class of people who are, more often than not, overlooked. Ridge described paying people with disabilities less than minimum wage as “no less than another critical civil rights issue.”
And he was right. Treating an entire group of people differently from everyone else simply because they have disabilities is a relic of the distant past that should stay in the distant past.
Yet efforts to eliminate this disparity over the years, by both Republicans and Democrats, have come up short on the federal level. Most recently, President Biden tried to remove the subminimum wage as part of the American Rescue Plan at the beginning of his administration, but never got it through Congress.
Since then, however, more than a dozen states have abolished the subminimum wage, according to the Association of People Supporting Employment First. But New York isn’t one of them. Not that our legislators haven’t tried — it’s just that none of their efforts have ever made it out of committee.
In New York City, the disparity of wages between those with disabilities and those without is glaring, according to a report last year by the Center for an Urban Future. In 2019, when the unemployment rate was about 4 percent — the lowest in the 43 years that the data has been tracked — the estimated unemployment rate for New York workers with disabilities stood at 12 percent. Their median income the same year was $30,500 — about $11,000 below the $41,500 median for those without a disability.
The COVID-19 crisis has only widened these disparities. New York workers with disabilities have long found lower-wage or part-time work in service industries like restaurants and hotels, industries devastated by the pandemic and among the slowest to recover, the report states.
The percentage of people with disabilities finding jobs is growing, but only 1-in-5 in that community is working. And of those, more are finding employment because they’re working for themselves rather than getting hired by someone else — a rate far higher than those without disabilities.
Even if the subminimum wage were finally abolished, there are many other hurdles that must be swept away for those with disabilities, and they can’t be ignored, either. But right now, hundreds if not thousands of our neighbors and community members aren’t getting the same consideration for pay as those without disabilities.
That must change. And if it can’t happen on the federal level, we need to focus our efforts much closer to home, blocking the availability of subminimum wages in our state.
Because as Tom Ridge made very clear, “all Americans should have the opportunity to pursue their dreams.”