Disabled employees – Exploitation or Opportunity?


I read this story today and I think I’ll weigh in on the argument because I have seen the pay disparity that disabled employees are victims of, but I also understand the ‘loophole’ and how it actually benefits some disabled employees. First of all here is the story Some Disabled Workers Paid Just Pennies An Hour.

Prior to going active duty Army, I worked in a variety of positions working with adults with disabilities. I have worked in vocational training programs, independent living programs, residential facilities, and group homes. In all honesty, I left that profession because of money – I couldn’t make a living wage and I was getting my ass kicked on a daily basis with no health coverage to compensate for it. It sucks, because I really LOVE working with individuals with disabilities – and I’m good at it. Not only do disabled employees get taken advantage of, but the people who care for them do too. Of course, I have the option to pursue higher paying positions, while they do not.

When it comes to employing the disabled there are a lot of variables that need to be considered and the ‘loophole’ mentioned in the article is one that allows employers to pay disabled workers according to what they can do. Now to someone on the outside this does seem unfair, and it IS abused by employers to get cheap labor. I do think the rules need to change and be rewritten so that employers can still hire disabled people and pay them according to the work they do, but there also has to be a reasonable way to determine a workers skills and then have the pay be consistent. As it is right now, a disabled person can work the same job for twenty years, but their pay will be adjusted whenever the employer wants. So a worker who was paid $5.75 an hour yesterday, could be paid $3.75 an hour today even though they are doing to same work at the same pace.

Restaurants are notorious for ‘hiring’ disabled workers to do things like clear tables, dishes, sweeping and cleaning around the outside of the restaurant. The thing is, most of these places are not the ones actually paying the worker – the pay comes from their “program” – usually a non-profit that does vocational training and then hires out its workers in the community – they set the wage that the restaurant will pay according to a workers abilities. Now I am in the camp that if a disabled employee is functional enough to work at a restaurant they should make minimum wage, even if the only thing they do is sweep all day. I think the only wage ‘fixing’ that should be done is within a vocational program – not in mainstream businesses.

If you have an able person who is only a cashier – they get paid minimum wage. If you have a disabled person as a cashier – they can be paid less. In situations like this – the ‘loophole’ is obviously unfair. If the disabled person does the same job as an abled person – they should get the same pay. It seems simple doesn’t it? It should be, and that is where this loophole needs to change. However, vocational centers should still be able to dictate wages based on ability. Most of these are ways for disabled people who could never work somewhere in the community the opportunity to earn some money and really just give them something structured to do everyday. I worked in one place where we spent the days packing salad dressing packets into bags for sale at dollar stores (don’t buy these…seriously). Here’s how it worked: The job is to take 6 packets of dressing and put them into a plastic bag and seal it. Now we had some guys who could go through an entire pallet of dressing in a day, and some people who could barely get through a box. In these situations – the guy who works harder, should get paid more than the guy who spent his day picking his nose. In these situations, the pay ‘loophole’ is needed otherwise vocational centers would never be able to provide work and pay for everyone.

Also, you have to realize that some of these people are so disabled that they don’t really know or care how much money they are making. There is a huge difference between hiring a blind person, and hiring a person who has multiple mental disabilities or severe physical disabilities. The mind, hands, and body of a blind person are fine and capable of meaningful work and should be paid accordingly. However you take the non-verbal autistic kid and he may only be able to pack salad dressings. We had one guy who spent his entire day sweeping one square on a tiled floor. That’s all he wanted to do, and was all he was capable of doing. He made about 10 cents an hour. Should he be paid the same rate as the guy who packs 100 cases of salad dressing?

Personally, I think if the person is capable of working in a community job (fast food, salvation army, landscaping etc.). They should make minimum wage. I think the only places that should be able to adjust the pay rate are the vocational centers that put those who can’t or won’t work in the community jobs because they are employing the ‘unemployable’ and the purpose of the work isn’t to make money – it is to  train workers to eventually get a community job, or for those who will never get a ‘real’ job – these vocational centers provide ways for them to work on things like social skills, hand/eye coordination, and following ‘rules’, they aren’t making money off of these people by paying a lower wage, like the community jobs who can easily exploit disabled workers.

Basically, I think it is a simple fix. Vocational programs should be the only people who get to dictate wages based on ability. If a person with Downs Syndrome is working at Applebee’s then they should be paid minimum wage. If they are packing salad dressings in a vocational program that program should be able to come up with a formula for pay. Just because you have a blind person hanging clothes at the Salvation Army instead of a seeing person hanging clothes they should not be able to pay the blind person less just because they are blind. That is discrimination under any definition and that is where the ‘loophole’ needs to be revised. Vocational centers should not be able to hire out workers at a lower rate. Once they are able to leave vocational training they should be paid like anyone else. Obviously, some of them will never leave the vocational programs, and those are usually the people who get just as excited over a $10 paycheck as they would over a $100 paycheck.

Think about it this way too – women don’t get equal pay for equal work either, but at least we are guaranteed the same paycheck every week. If a disabled person is working in the community, they should at least get the same pay with the opportunity for advancement – they should not ever be allowed to lower the wage. So if a person gets paid $3.75 an hour to hang clothes, that rate should never be lowered. If they are super awesome clothes hangers, they should be allowed raises for performance just like anyone else.

It’s tricky business because people with disabilities are just as diverse as people without disabilities. Some will work harder than others, some are smarter than others. I mean really, I wish we could treat some “able” employees like we treat disabled ones. “Oh you didn’t feel like working hard today? You get $3.00 less an hour.” People would lose their minds. Just because these folks have a disability doesn’t mean they are completely unaware or inept. Those who are capable of working ‘real’ jobs are capable of understanding that they are being taken advantage of and that is where things need to change.


5 thoughts on “Disabled employees – Exploitation or Opportunity?

      • I’m wondering if you saw my comment on one of the FB posts about this story? You took a lot of words right out of my head (as you usually do….I have to think much much longer before I could write as intelligently and fairly as you do.)

        • I didn’t see your post, but I’ll go look for it now. I just have a lot of experience with this particular issue and I have always hated how they do it. Some agencies are better than others of course.

  1. Pingback: Society has Murdered the Disabled & the Christians. | The Voice Of Australians

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