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Disability Scoop
August 15, 2014

Jeff Long was one of 21 men with intellectual disabilities discovered in 2009 toiling away at an Iowa turkey processing plant and living in deplorable conditions while earning just $65 per month from an employer with an expired subminimum wage certificate. (Melanie Burford/Dallas Morning News/MCT)

A nationwide effort is underway to lodge federal complaints against sheltered workshops that are not fully complying with the law.

The National Disability Rights Network — an umbrella group for the federally-mandated protection and advocacy organizations in each state — is asking its members to aggressively review the practices of employers in their area that pay people with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

Under current law, employers can obtain special permission from the U.S. Department of Labor to pay people with disabilities what’s known as subminimum wage. However, businesses with special wage certificates must adhere to strict procedures when doing so, regularly assessing each worker’s productivity level, among other requirements.

“We have good reason to believe that in many cases things are not being done correctly in those environments,” said Amy Scherer, a staff attorney with the National Disability Rights Network, which found in a 2011 report that government oversight of employers paying subminimum wage is limited.

Through an initiative launched late last month, the national group is urging its members across the country to report suspected violations to the Department of Labor. Already, an employer was discovered with no records documenting the payment of subminimum wage to its workers with disabilities.

Individuals can contact the protection and advocacy organization in their state if they are aware of a potential violation, Scherer said. Her group is hopeful that a coordinated effort to file complaints this summer will spur the Labor Department to act.

Officials with the federal agency said they welcome the effort.

“The agency has been pursuing strategies to strengthen compliance,” a Department of Labor spokeswoman said in a statement to Disability Scoop. “These strategies include using all available enforcement tools to remedy and deter future violations; providing new compliance assistance materials and tools; and hosting new compliance conferences for employers, community rehabilitation programs, advocates, workers and other interested parties.”

Hundreds of thousands of people with developmental disabilities are believed to work for less than minimum wage. But the practice has become contentious in recent years as individuals increasingly live and work in the community as opposed to segregated environments.

Just last month, President Barack Obama signed legislation limiting the ability of many young adults with disabilities to work for less than minimum wage unless they first explore other employment options.

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