By Michael Kraines, Tom Weaver and Steven Howard
Having a job or pursuing a career is important for all of us, bankers or bartenders, servers or salespeople, and this doesn’t exclude people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Work helps give meaning to our lives, helps us make a contribution and can be fulfilling. Employment is no less important for people with disabilities and they want to work. One federal policy plays a critical role in providing employment opportunities: the commensurate wage. It is premised on the basis of proportionality or comparability. It allows for people with significant disabilities to be employed in a vast array of private industries across our nation, but at a special minimum wage.
Employment is not charity, but a purposeful endeavor where a business employs people to get a job accomplished. Wages paid to an employee require a minimum level of productivity for the employer’s investment in that employee. The vast majority of employment is competitive. Yet there are people with significant disabilities that may not possess the skills and ability to obtain a job on a competitive basis. Commensurate wages allow an employer to pay a person with a disability a wage based on their productivity. The measurement of that productivity is a rigorous process, regulated by the Department of Labor.
Employment is more than just a paycheck, and for some would be impossible if not for the commensurate wage. Having a job increases interactions between individuals with and without disabilities. When hired by a private business it promotes inclusion, understanding, and respect for both the community at large and the person employed. There is a positive connection between working and future opportunities to advance in employment. People learn specific jobs and develop a variety of “soft” skills that can only be learned with the opportunity to be employed. Contributing, regardless of ability or disability, is important for one’s self-esteem.
Today there are efforts underway to eliminate the commensurate wage, authorized by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. People and organizations, such as the National Federation of the Blind and Association of People Supporting Employment First (APSE) support an end to commensurate wage, yet in our view neither represent the interests of people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, where competitive employment is a truly significant challenge.
While competitive employment is desirable, what politicians truly fail to grasp is that there are people employed today in meaningful ways, ways that are important to that individual employed, which honor individual choice and in a safe and respectful manner, which would not have occurred without the commensurate wage. Even with the commensurate wage available as it is today, it is a challenge to find employers willing to hire people that can’t perform the job on par with an employee without a disability.
The TIME Act has been introduced in Congress in recent sessions. It would bar the Department of Labor from issuing new certificates permitting the payment of commensurate wages and phasing out existing certificates within three years. The legislation has failed to gain much traction to date. But the tide is turning. If passed, the TIME Act would be a monumental change. One should wonder what employment would look like in the future for people with significant intellectual or developmental disabilities and ask: Will the thousands of people who work today for a special minimum wage have the opportunity to be employed at all once competitive employment is their only option? Further, have any of the politicians discussed this with their constituents who are disabled and earning a special minimum wage? Or, once again, are people with intellectual or developmental disabilities having these decisions made for them by others who think they know what is best?
Michael Kraines, Thomas Weaver and Steven Howard serve as leaders of organizations providing services to people with disabilities, members of the Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation(MOHR), whose members serve more than 26,000 Minnesotans with disabilities.