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ASAN, Disability Rights Ohio, and National Federation of the Blind Win Landmark Department of Labor Decision Against Sheltered Workshop

In a groundbreaking opinion issued yesterday, the U.S. Department of Labor found that a sheltered workshop in Ohio had violated federal minimum wage laws by underpaying three of its workers with disabilities, including one autistic man. The opinion followed a petition that Autistic Self Advocacy Network filed along with Disability Rights Ohio, the National Federation of the Blind, and the Baltimore law firm of Brown, Goldstein & Levy, LLP. Seneca Re-Ad, a sheltered workshop run by the Seneca County Board of Developmental Disabilities, had been paying the complainants, Joe Magers, Pam Steward, and Mark Felton, an average of $2.50 an hour for more than three years.

An outdated exception to federal minimum wage laws, known as Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, allows certain employers to pay less than minimum wage to people with disabilities if they can show that the disabilities prevent them from being as “productive” as the average nondisabled worker.

Although federal law allows workers with disabilities to file a petition for review of their wages by the U.S. Department of Labor, Felton, Magers, and Steward are among the first workers with disabilities ever to use the petition process to fight for fair wages. This low level of enforcement means that many workshops have paid people below-minimum wages based simply on the assumption that people with disabilities are not as productive as people without disabilities, using flawed productivity measurements as “documentation.”

An administrative law judge for the Department of Labor found that Felton, Magers, and Steward, and Felton were entitled to back pay to make up the difference between their past wages and minimum wage, and to minimum wage going forward.

“Many people are shocked when they find out that it is legal to pay people with disabilities less than minimum wage,” said Samantha Crane, Legal Director and Director of Public Policy at ASAN. “But what’s even more surprising is how rare this type of enforcement action has been until now. We hope this decision puts other workshops on notice that they won’t get away with this sort of exploitation.”

“The opinion highlights that each of our clients brings valuable employment skills to the Seneca Re-Ad facility, and their value as workers should be respected,” says DRO Attorney Barbara Corner. “People with disabilities are full and equal members of society and should be paid fairly.”

Mark A. Riccobono, President of the National Federation of the Blind, said: “This decision cuts through the low expectations based on stereotypes and misconceptions that undergird the antiquated and discriminatory subminimum-wage employment model. The National Federation of the Blind is proud of our role in helping these workers to earn compensation that reflects the skilled work that they perform. We believe that this decision sends a strong signal that subminimum wages are an idea whose time has long since passed.”

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.

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