Chicago, Illinois — Andy has little time to chitchat. There are hundreds of hot towels to sort and fold, and when that’s done, there are yet more to wash and dry. The 41-year-old is one of half a dozen laundry-room workers at Misericordia, a community for people with disabilities in the Windy City. He and his colleagues, all of whom are intellectually disabled and reside on the Misericordia “campus,” know that their work has purpose, and they delight in each task and every busy hour.
In addition to his job at the laundry room, Andy holds two others. “For two days I work at Sacred Heart”—a nearby Catholic school—“and at Target. Target is a store, a big super-store. At Sacred Heart, I sweep floors and tables.”
“Ah, so you’re the janitor there?” I follow up.
“No, no! I just clean. I love working there.”
Andy’s packed schedule is typical for the higher-functioning residents at Misericordia, many of whom juggle multiple jobs. Their work at Misericordia helps meet real community needs—laundry, recycling, gardening, cooking, baking, and so on—while preparing residents for the private labor market. Andy has already found competitive employment (at Target), but many others rely on Misericordia’s own programs to stay active and employed.
Yet if progressive lawmakers and minimum-wage crusaders have their way, many of these opportunities would disappear, along with the Depression-era law which makes them possible.
The law, Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, permits employers to pay people with disabilities a specialized wage based on their ability to perform various jobs. It thus encourages the hiring of the disabled while ensuring that they are paid a wage commensurate with their productivity. The law safeguards against abuse by, among other things, requiring employers to regularly review and adjust wages as disabled employees make productivity gains. Many of these employers are nonprofit entities that exist solely to provide meaningful work for the disabled.
Only 20 percent of Americans with disabilities participate in the labor force. The share is even smaller among those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. For this group, work isn’t mainly about money—most of the Misericordia residents are oblivious to how much they get paid—so much as it is about purpose and community. What the disabled seek from work is “the feeling of safety, the opportunity to work alongside friends, and an atmosphere of kindness and understanding,” says Scott Mendel, chairman of Together for Choice, which campaigns for freedom of choice for the disabled and their families. (Mendel’s daughter, who has cerebral palsy, lives and works at Misericordia.)
Abstract principles of economic justice, divorced from economic realities and the lived experience of people with disabilities, are a recipe for disaster in this area. Yet that’s the approach taken by too many progressives these days.
Last month, for example, seven Senate progressives led by Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts wrote a letter to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta denouncing Section 14(c) for setting “low expectations for workers with disabilities” and relegating them to “second-class” status. The senators also took issue with so-called sheltered workshops, like those at Misericordia, which are specifically designed to help the disabled find pathways to market employment. Activists at the state level, meanwhile, continue to press for the abolition of such programs, and they have already succeeded in restricting or limiting them in a number of jurisdictions, most notably in Pennsylvania, where such settings have been all but eliminated.
While there have been a few, notorious cases of 14(c) and sheltered-workshop abuse over the years, existing law provides mechanisms for punishing firms for misconduct. Getting rid of 14(c) and sheltered workshops, however, could potentially leave hundreds of thousands of disabled people unemployed. Activists have yet to explain what it is they expect these newly jobless to do with their time.
Competitive employment simply isn’t an option for many of the most disabled. And even those like Andy, who are employed in the private economy, tend to work at most 20 hours a week at their competitive jobs. What would they do with the rest of their time, if sheltered workshops didn’t exist? Most likely, they would “veg out” in front of a television. Squeezing 14(c) program and forcing private employers to pay minimum wage to workers whose productivity falls far short of the norm wouldn’t improve the lot of the disabled; it would leave them jobless.
Economic reality is reality no less for the disabled.
Nor have progressives accounted for the effects on the lives of the disabled in jurisdictions that have restricted sheltered workshops. “None of these states have done an adequate job of ascertaining whether these actions actually enhanced the quality of life for the individuals affected,” a study in the Social Improvement Journal concluded last year. Less time in sheltered workshops, the study found, “was not replaced with a corollary increase in the use of more integrated forms of employment.” Rather, “these individuals were essentially unemployed, engaging in made-up day activities.”
Make-work is not what Andy and his colleagues are up to today at Misericordia. They complete real tasks, which benefit their fellow residents in concrete ways. “This work is training, but it also gives them meaning,” one Misericordia director told me. “It’s not just doing meaningless work, but it’s going toward something. We’re not setting them up to do something that someone else takes apart. This is something that’s needed.” Yet, in the name of economic justice, progressives are on the verge of depriving men and women like Andy of the dignity of work and the freedom of choice that non-disabled Americans take for granted.