Letter: By eliminating wages for the disabled, Minnesota Legislature will hurt rather than help

"Without the subminimum wage allowance, even employers who want to hire the disabled will have a disincentive to do so," University of Minnesota professor Carlisle Ford Runge writes.

Letter to the editor FSA

The Minnesota Legislature is currently considering the repeal of provisions for disabled workers (known as “14c” programs) in which these workers are paid wages that fall below the minimum level. These wages enable programs for these workers to be conducted through private businesses at business locations or in adult employment centers where contracts are met with projects such as recycling or kit assemblies on site. I know because my disabled daughter Elizabeth (“Liz”) is employed at such a center and has worked there for over ten years.

Advocates of eliminating the “subminimum wage,” including a recent task force of the Department of Health and Human Services on Eliminating the Subminimum Wage (whose foregone conclusion is enshrined in its title) have made two major errors that would have terrible consequences for the disabled adults affected by these changes. The proposal misapprehends both the basic realities of the Minnesota labor market and undermines the standards of equity it purports to defend.

Our disabled daughter Elizabeth, who is 35, has worked successfully and with real job satisfaction at an adult employment center with her peers for the past decade. Her earnings are modest but that is hardly 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.

Elizabeth is transported to and from a job center each day in Vadnais Heights, Minnesota, where she engages in a variety of contract jobs that give her a sense of responsibility and fulfillment. These jobs allow her to spend full days with talented staff and her friends and co-workers. She 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 co-workers stay at the center while others go into the community to work at businesses such as local supermarkets, where they are carefully supervised.

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 the subminimum wage allowance, even employers who want to hire the disabled will have a disincentive to do so and many more such workers will never find jobs at all.


Paying all workers, disabled or not, the same wages 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.

No one would deny the right of any worker to seek employment at any wage they might receive, at or above the minimum. But to deny the opportunity to make less than the minimum wage to those disabled workers who desire and enjoy such employment is to deny market reality and an appropriate understanding of real equity. In the end, it will mean that many more such workers will be closed out of the marketplace and will remain unemployed and home alone. It may also cause many disabled adult employment centers to shut down, reminiscent of Reagan era efforts to close centers for the mentally ill and leave them to fend for themselves. Is that the social vision of a progressive legislature and administration?

Carlisle Ford Runge is a professor of applied economics and law at the University of Minnesota.

This letter does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.

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