Local View: Let's help, not hurt, disabled workers in Minnesota

From the column: "Paying all workers, disabled or not, the same wage confuses two types of equity."

Carlisle Ford Runge.JPG
Carlisle Ford Runge

Disabled workers in the “14(c)” program are paid wages below the minimum that enable them to work for private-sector businesses either on-site or in employment centers, where projects are completed under contract such as recycling or kit assemblies. I know because my disabled daughter Elizabeth is employed at such a center and has worked there for more than 10 years.

Advocates for ending these private-sector jobs by eliminating the “subminimum wage” include the recent task force of the Minnesota Department of Human Services on Eliminating the Subminimum Wage (whose foregone conclusion seems enshrined in its title) and resulting legislation now before the Minnesota House and Senate.

Elizabeth receives a wage based on an established record of her productivity, which is not sufficient to support her but does not cause her federal disability income to be reduced. Some of her coworkers stay at the center while others go into the community to work at businesses such as local supermarkets, where they are carefully supervised but in no way segregated.

Her earnings are modest, but that hardly is the point. Our experience belies descriptions of workplaces like hers as Dickensian dens that “segregate disabled people from their communities” to engage in “monotonous work.” Far from placing them in an environment in which they are exploited, such centers protect vulnerable adults from the risks and possible abuse they would face in an unfettered job market.

Authors of the current bill have made two major errors, resulting in terrible consequences for disabled adults working at these jobs.


The current bill misapprehends both the basic realities of the Minnesota labor market and undermines the standards of equity it purports to defend. Suppose an employer at a supermarket faces the choice of hiring someone to stock shelves. One applicant can stock them at twice the rate of another applicant, who has cerebral palsy. Both are required to be paid the same minimum wage. Who will get the job? Probably not the disabled worker. Without a subminimum wage allowance, even employers who want to hire the disabled have a disincentive to do so, and many more such workers will never find jobs at all.

If the price of something is increased, the quantity demanded will tend to decrease. Workers with disabilities are no exception to the elementary principles of the law of demand. Forcing them into a higher wage bracket is a form of cruelty to make the forcers feel virtuous.

Paying all workers, disabled or not, the same wage confuses two types of equity. One is that those similarly situated should be treated the same. The other is that those who are not similarly situated should be treated differently. Those advocating the elimination of subminimum wages confuse the first type of equity with the second. A worker with cerebral palsy is not the same as a worker without it, and they should not be treated as if they are.

This bill has been supported in the name of freedom of choice: freedom to choose by those working at less than minimum wage and find competitive jobs outside of their current workplaces.

But two separate measures of this freedom tell a very different story and offer added evidence against this proposition. First, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, in a 2020 report, received nearly 10,000 comments on ending the 14(c) wage from all 50 states. Most of these comments, 98% of them, supported keeping this wage program in place. Second, the Minnesota Vocational Rehabilitation Service is required to counsel any disabled person receiving below-minimum wages and encourage them to find other wage employment. It found that in the six years of this counseling, over 90% of the roughly 6,000 people receiving this service did not want to leave their current below-minimum-wage jobs. Can you blame them? Do you respect their freedom of choice?

Evidence from three other states that have eliminated below-minimum wages is deeply disturbing, as reported in 2018 by a national group representing autistic adults. In Maine, two-thirds of disabled former workshop employees are now unemployed. Those who are still working work an average of 12 hours a week, the lowest average in the country. In the state of Washington, 80% of those with severe cognitive impairment remain unemployed. In Vermont, there are now fewer developmentally disabled adults in supported employment than in 2002, when employment workshops closed. As the document citing these failures states in conclusion: “When sheltered workshops close, participants often end up idle at home, not in competitive, minimum wage jobs.”

This bill would raise unemployment among disabled workers, as it has in other states. It is unfair and inequitable to fail to acknowledge disability as differentiating some people from others and meriting appropriate accommodations. It patronizingly denies the disabled the freedom to choose to work at 14(c) wages when they have expressed a clear preference for doing so. Finally, it runs directly in the face of the evidence from other states that a dismal future awaits those disabled adults when below-minimum wages are eliminated and their workplaces close.

Carlisle Ford Runge is a distinguished McKnight university professor of applied economics and law at the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus.

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