Thursday, February 6, 2014

Minimum Wage ... Updates and Further Thoughts

Sam Hananel, ABC / Associated Press - February 4, 2014

Here is a more up to date report on the minimum wage increase / sub-minimum wage issue. There’s not much new to report, except that it looks like more disability groups are getting into gear and pushing the White House to act. I’d say right about now would be a good time for President Obama to announce that the federal contract worker Minimum Wage hike will benefit all qualified workers, and that nobody will be paid less than Minimum Wage again.

And, here's a terrific blog post that's more of an editorial, but also provides a good overview of this issue.

Sarah Levis, Girl With The Cane - February 6, 2014

I would just add a couple of points.

First, at the moment this argument is only about 14(c) exemption workers who are also working for federal contractors. President Obama's Minimum Wage increase would only apply to federal contractors, and not all 14(c) workers are federal contractors. So even if we win this fight, it won't necessarily do away with 14(c) entirely, and many disabled workers would still get less than the current Minimum Wage. The real value of winning this fairly narrow issue is that it could start the dominoes toppling, leading to the end of sub-Minimum Wage for everyone.

Second, exactly what authority the President has in this matter isn't a simple question to answer. I'm not saying he doesn't have the authority, I'm saying it isn't a "slam dunk". And unfortunately, the moral weight of the issue doesn't make any difference to the legal outcome. The reason why Presidential authority is so crucial is that it would be a much taller order to get Congress to act.

Another possibility that I wonder if anyone has explored is the courts. Make an Equal Protection argument that the 1930s-era 14(c) program is unconstitutional. I have no idea if that is at all feasible, but it's worth thinking about.

Finally, as Sarah Levis says in her blog post, the disability community, itself, is somewhat divided on whether sub-Minimum Wage should be an option. If you believe in your gut that lots of severely disabled people have no realistic hope for a "regular" job, then getting less than Minimum Wage might look like a better option than no job at all. Suddenly increasing pay for everyone in a sheltered workshop might blow up their business models, and put them out of business. That wouldn't break my heart, but it would create at least a short-term problem of how to help the people who would essentially lose their jobs.

Though frankly, I've heard this type of concern mostly from family members of disabled people, and rarely from the workers themselves. They know in their bones that that being paid less than Minimum Wage is unfair and humiliating, and it matters to them.

I still think this is a critical equality issue, and that the President's Minimum Wage increase is a great opportunity to kick off fundamental change. But, it's not going to be easy, and the policy aspects of it aren't as clear as the ethics.