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Minimum Wage: An Obstacle to Meaningful Work for the Most Vulnerable

I work for a company that sells products and services manufactured and delivered by people with disabilities. We don’t employ such people directly, but we work every day on their behalf.

As you can imagine, this is not always easy. In fact, sometimes it can seem like an impossible task. That’s because people with disabilities aren’t always capable of producing as much as non-disabled employees, and often require heavy supervision that drives up both the costs of production and the prices we market to potential customers.

I once visited a workshop that employs people with cognitive disabilities. I observed one of the employees putting small metal bolts into various boxes according to their size and shape. The boxes would then be sold to local contractors and hardware stores.

As easy as the job was, he was doing it all wrong. After just a few minutes, his supervisor was forced to empty the boxes and explain to him yet again how to do his job. He started again, but after watching him for another few minutes, I wasn’t sure he would ever get it right.

But there are success stories, too. I once met a woman who suffered from a severe learning disability. She had been unemployed for years and almost gave up hope of ever finding steady employment and supporting her children. After several months working with a local charity organization, however, she found a job on a janitorial crew. At first, she struggled. She had very little self-esteem and found it difficult to follow instructions. But her willingness to try again until she got things right impressed her supervisors and she was promoted and given full-time benefits after just two years.

I could go on. We work with thousands of people like this, and the stories are as endless and diverse as the many lessons I’ve learned from them. But let me end with one timely lesson: Peter Schiff is right.

Random, I know. Peter Schiff is a libertarian commentator and investment banker. You are probably wondering what he has to do with employing people with disabilities.

Answer: Recently, Schiff came under heavy scrutiny after insisting that employers should be allowed to pay employees with mental disabilities $2 per hour. The interview was televised as part of a Daily Show clip highlighting the minimum wage debate.

[pullquote]     To keep people with disabilities from finding meaningful work would be outright unfair.[/pullquote]

Unfortunately, Schiff’s choice of words was poor. But his idea—that persons with disabilities should be allowed to work regardless of how productive they are—was not. In fact, insisting that people with disabilities earn minimum wage like everyone else creates a huge barrier to them finding and keeping a job. Allowing them to work for less—even Schiff’s $2 per hour—is the only way to ensure that all who wish to work can find work, regardless of how productive they are.

This is because employees must provide more in value to their employers than they take home in wages. For example, if a new salesman is paid $50,000 per year, he must sell more than $50,000 per year in order to add any value to his employer. If he does not, the business would be wise to let him go before they run out of money altogether. The same holds true for employees of any type: salesmen, cashiers, drivers, executives, janitors and workshop hands alike.

In that light, it should be clear why employing persons with disabilities is only made more difficult by insisting that employers pay them the minimum wage. Like the workshop employee I mentioned above, they’re not always very productive. Like the janitorial specialist, following instructions is not always easy. Employing them is often more a matter of charity and good will than making a profit.

If the Daily Show had done their research, they’d see that many Americans with disabilities do work for less than minimum wage, and some for $2 per hour or less. That’s because Congress provides an exception to minimum wage for people with disabilities, many of whom would never find an employer willing to pay them the going minimum wage for their work. Even Congress knows that forcing businesses to pay employees with disabilities the minimum wage is a bad idea.

Peter Schiff is right: People with disabilities should not be prohibited from finding meaningful work because they aren’t as productive as non-disabled people. To do otherwise would be outright unfair.

Out of respect for those thousands of organizations whose mission is to employ persons with disabilities, please note that many of them do pay no less than minimum wage to their employees. When they do not, their employees often receive other forms of compensation, such as subsidized living and assistance with transportation to and from work. Additionally, many people with disabilities are extremely productive and capable of providing true value to their employers, and thereby do not need an exception to minimum wage. But my point remains: People with disabilities deserve the right to find work and should not be prohibited from doing so simply because they may not be as productive as their non-disabled counterparts.