Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act allows community rehabilitation programs such as Opportunity Village to pay individuals with severe disabilities less than the minimum wage if their disability impedes their productivity. Section 14(c) is administered by the U.S. Department of Labor, which certifies and manages the program. Nearly 500,000 people with severe disabilities receive special minimum wages nationally, including my daughter.
Some utopian academics would like to eliminate Section 14(c). They believe people with severe disabilities are being unfairly exploited and that all workers should be paid at least the minimum wage. On the surface, this position seems reasonable. Upon rational examination, it is nonsense.
Section 14(c) deals with people with disabilities who cannot perform at the same level, in quality or quantity, as people without a disability. It encourages employers to hire and retain individuals who would not otherwise qualify for ongoing employment. As a parent with a severely disabled child, I am grateful for this provision in the law.
No one with a disability is forced to accept employment that pays below the minimum wage. Disabilities vary widely ,and many higher-functioning individuals are very capable of competing in the workforce and making a wage at or higher than the minimum. Section 14(c) is only for those who cannot.
Well-meaning zealots would like to see full employment in an integrated workforce for all people with disabilities, even those who require a full-time helper to assist workers with the most severe disabilities. It sounds like a perfect solution — until you consider the cost and the fact that no business person is going to invest in two people when one will suffice, and that some disabled employees, including my daughter, cause disruptions in the workplace with seizures or outbursts.
These same zealots call Opportunity Village a warehousing operation and would like to close it. Clearly they have never been to an Opportunity Village campus.
I know my daughter. I love her, her brothers and their mother more than life itself. And I know the $35 she makes every two weeks means the world to her. She is earning a paycheck like her brothers and Mom and Dad. She goes to Opportunity Village to “work” five days a week. She does what she can — some sorting, packaging utensils or toiletries, and painting a scarf, umbrella or a picture. She talks to her friends, plays her DS game and watches a movie on Fridays. No pressure, no stress. Kind of like your job, right?
Opportunity Village is a wonderful place for a woman with a severe disability. The big secret is that it is not just about a paycheck. It’s about quality of life and pride in earning a paycheck. Would another business hire my daughter and pay her minimum wage? No. Can Opportunity Village afford to pay her minimum wage? Maybe, but that would mean dropping hundreds of disabled employees from its workforce — perhaps even her.
Section 14(c) helps people with severe disabilities receive a paycheck. If there are abuses, then investigate them. Anyone who abuses one of these wonderful souls deserves to be punished. The purpose of Section 14(c) is to employ people with disabilities. This law provides civil rights protections for people with disabilities and protects their right to work under the Constitution. People, like my daughter, who would not have the chance otherwise.
That is what we here in the desert call common sense.
Bob Brown is publisher of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He is a member of the Opportunity Village Board of Directors.