COLUMBUS, OHIO – After working for an average of $2.50 an hour for more than three years, three Disability Rights Ohio (DRO) clients are asking for fair pay from Seneca Re-Ads, a sheltered workshop run by the County Board of Developmental Disabilities in Seneca County. The employees’ work duties include cutting and assembling samples for flooring company Roppe Industries, a private corporation. Through a novel and potentially precedent-setting procedure, the three DRO clients have asked the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) to review their claims. The petition, which is supported by the National Federation of the Blind, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, and the Baltimore law firm of Brown, Goldstein & Levy, LLP, requests that USDOL review the clients’ wages and the means by which the current wages were set.
Since the 1930s, federal law has permitted employers to pay workers with disabilities less than minimum wage, but only if the lower wage is necessary to ensure employment opportunities, and on the condition that each worker is paid a wage commensurate with his or her productivity as compared to workers without disabilities. The law contains a little-known provision allowing workers with disabilities to petition the USDOL for an administrative review of their wages in an expedited process.
Joe Magers, Pam Steward, and Mark Felton are among the first workers with disabilities ever to utilize the petition process to seek a review of their wages by the USDOL. They believe that their disabilities, which include visual impairments and autism, do not impair their workplace productivity, and that Seneca Re-Ads’ method of calculating wages fails to fairly measure their productivity or take into account the prevailing wage for similar highly skilled production work in the community. Magers, Steward, and Felton are also seeking compensation for unpaid hours of work in which they were required to attend mandatory staff meetings and safety trainings.
“Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the workshop is permitted to pay less than minimum wage but only if the workshop follows the procedures laid out in the law, which wasn’t done here,” said Barbara Corner, attorney and Employment Team Leader for DRO. “Our clients’ disabilities do not preclude them from working hard and even using heavy machinery, and they deserve and want the opportunity to earn as much as workers without disabilities.”
“Sheltered workshops often make self-fulfilling prophesies that people with developmental disabilities simply can’t be as productive as people without disabilities,” adds Samantha Crane, Legal Director for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. “Our clients haven’t been given the chance they need to earn even a minimally decent wage. They deserve the same basic protections that many people without disabilities take for granted.”
With the filing of this petition, USDOL has 40 days to assign an administrative law judge and hold a hearing. At the hearing, Seneca Re-Ad must prove that it followed the rules and paid an appropriate wage, and if the administrative law judge finds that Seneca Re-Ad failed to comply with its legal obligations, the workers must be paid minimum wage for their labor.
Mark A. Riccobono, President of the National Federation of the Blind, said, “This case demonstrates the fundamentally arbitrary manner in which wages for workers with disabilities are set by many entities that hold 14(c) certificates, and how this antiquated, discriminatory employment model, based on false assumptions and low expectations, relegates these workers to second-class status. We hope that the Department of Labor acts swiftly to correct the injustice that is being perpetrated upon these workers.”
About the Autistic Self Advocacy Network: The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) is a national, private, nonprofit organization, run by and for individuals on the autism spectrum. ASAN provides public education and promotes public policies that benefit autistic individuals and others with developmental or other disabilities. Its advocacy activities include combating stigma, discrimination, and violence against autistic people and others with disabilities; promoting access to employment, health care and long-term supports in integrated community settings; and educating the public about the access needs of autistic people. ASAN takes a strong interest in cases that affect the rights of autistic individuals to participate fully in community life and enjoy the same rights as others without disabilities.
About Disability Rights Ohio: Disability Rights Ohio is the federally and state designated Protection and Advocacy System and Client Assistance Program for the state of Ohio. The mission of Disability Rights Ohio is to advocate for the human, civil and legal rights of people with disabilities in Ohio. Disability Rights Ohio provides legal advocacy and rights protection to a wide range of people with disabilities.
About the National Federation of the Blind: The National Federation of the Blind knows that blindness is not the characteristic that defines you or your future. Every day we raise the expectations of blind people, because low expectations create obstacles between blind people and our dreams. You can live the life you want; blindness is not what holds you back.
Samantha Crane, J.D.
Legal Director, Director of Public Policy
Autistic Self Advocacy Network