By Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY, February 12, 2014
WASHINGTON — President Obama's executive order to raise the minimum wage for workers under future federal contracts includes a key provision to address concerns raised by advocates for disabled workers, according to the White House.
The president, who is set to sign the order at a ceremony in the White House East Room on Wednesday afternoon, announced his plan to take unilateral action at last month's State of the Union Address and hike the minimum wage for low-wage workers to $10.10 from the current rate of $7.25.
Almost immediately after announcing his plan, advocates for the physically and intellectually disabled began pressing the White House to include the group among those getting raises. Under a government program that dates back to 1938, employers could pay certain disabled workers subminimum wages — sometimes for a fraction of the prevailing minimum wage.
But with Obama's executive order, that practice will be discontinued with disabled workers laboring under federal contracts in the future.
"Under current law, workers whose productivity is affected because of their disabilities may be paid less than the wage paid to others doing the same job under certain specialized certificate programs," according to a White House memo detailing the order. "Under this Executive Order, all individuals working under service or concessions contracts with the federal government will be covered by the same $10.10 per hour minimum wage protections."
The White House says Obama will continue to push Congress to back legislation that would gradually raise the minimum wage for all workers to $10.10 by the end of his presidency, but the effort faces stiff resistance in the GOP-controlled House.
The executive order is intended to cover people who perform janitorial, kitchen work and other low-wage services on behalf of federal contractors. The action is eventually expected to help roughly 250,000 workers, but it is unclear how many of those are disabled workers who receive subminimum wage under section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Ari Ne'eman, president of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, welcomed the news and said he's hopeful that the president marks the first step toward ending the practice of issuing the special certificates. About 95% of disabled workers who work for subminimum wages under the provision are employed in segregated sheltered workshops.
"We applaud the administration for hearing the voices of the disability community and including disabled workers in the new minimum wage protections for contractors," Ne'eman said. "We hope to work with them going forward to convince Congress to repeal Section 14(c) for all disabled workers. Equal rights should apply to everyone — we took a significant step forward on that road today."
Operators of sheltered workshops say that including 14(c) workers in Obama's minimum wage hike would inevitably lead to many disabled people being pushed out of work.