If you're a typical able-bodied McWorker, you're probably struggling to survive on a minimum wage of $7 or $8. If you're among the lucky handful of able-bodied McWorkers just now entering the McWorkforce of a federal contractor, President Obama has benevolently decreed that your pay must start at $10.10 an hour. Because it's the right thing to do, because it's the all-American thing to do. Because Ten-Ten is easy to remember, and because it's a perfect Democratic campaign slogan. (When is the Ten? Ten, Ten, Say It Again! GOP Pays No AtTENtion!)
If, however, you are a disabled McWorker enrolled in a public-private federal "sheltered workshop" program, you will not get a raise. You won't even get minimum wage. That is because disabled people have long been legally subjected to something called "sub-minimum wage." When it comes to making laws for the remuneration of labor, the government has conveniently lumped people with Autism, Down Syndrome, vision impairment, PTSD and other conditions into the same category as prisoners.
Barack Obama, newly self-cast as champion of the working stiff, is willfully discriminating against disabled people, who are three times as likely to live in poverty as a person who is not disabled. So much for his spiel about it not being about "who you are, where you were born, and where you come from." If you're disabled, you apparently don't qualify to be part of his vaunted middle-class dream. You're too impaired to climb up that Ladder of Opportunity. You are separate, and you are unequal.
There has been an immediate uproar. Workers are not silently accepting being scratched out by Obama's magical executive pen. They and their advocates are pushing back against their segregation, big-time. From Disability Scoop:
It’s unclear how many people earn less than minimum wage as employees of federal contractors, but the AbilityOne Program, which facilitates federal contracts for employers of those with disabilities, says that nearly 50,000 people with disabilities were employed through its programs in 2012, many of whom are believed to be working for subminimum wage.
In a call this week with U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez and Vice President Joe Biden, disability advocates say they were told that the executive order would not alter the ability of approved federal contractors to continue paying people with disabilities less than minimum wage, though such workers could see a slight uptick in pay. That’s because sub-minimum wage is often calculated as a percentage of the pay that a typical worker would earn for the same job.
Now disability groups are uniting to ask Obama to reconsider.“This may mean that a worker receiving pennies an hour today may receive a dime as a result of the executive order. Surely we can do better than this,” wrote Jeff Rosen, chairperson of the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency tasked with advising Congress and the president on disability issues, in a letter to Perez and Obama.Meanwhile, a separate letter to the administration organized by the Collaboration to Promote Self Determination has support from the Autism Society, the National Down Syndrome Congress, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and TASH, among others.The White House, despite Obama's recent boast that he'd make this a "year of action" and bypass Congress to help regular people, wasted no time announcing that Obama would indeed defer to Congress on the possible scrapping of the discriminatory sub-minimum wage for one "irregular" segment of the population.
So what gives? Follow the money. The AbilityOne program reports annual profit increases of more than 6% to go along with its procurement of an ever-increasing number of disabled workers. So what a great way for the captains of industry to both brag about "hiring the handicapped" and save big-time on their labor costs! The United States Military Academy at West Point, for example, was able to get rid of its entire well-paid unionized janitorial staff simply by subcontracting with a local private social services agency offering up its clients up for a lot less money.... and, of course, no collective bargaining.
Elsewhere, disabled people provided by AbilityOne manufacture military uniforms, launder military uniforms, clean military equipment, sort military mail, manufacture military pens, package military food, and wash military dishes.... all for a salary as low as $3.25 an hour, after the "procurer" gets his own generous cut, of course.
You really think Free Marketeer Obama is going to shut down these plantations without a fight?
It's not only disabled workers being abused under the current system. It's the very same small business owners and manufacturers whom the president so loves to praise during his non-stop propaganda tour of America's factories. They're being squeezed out of government contracts because they're not allowed to pay their own workers sub-minimum wage.
One private uniform manufacturing plant in Alabama was forced to shut its doors in 2012 because it couldn't keep up with the AbilityOne competition, putting 175 people out of work. And as is the case with most neoliberal public-private contract schemes, it's the taxpayers as well as the exploited workers who end up paying more after the bidding-immune contractors rake in all the profits. The materials used are often shoddy. Corners are often cut. From Bloomberg News:
The (Defense Logistics) agency paid as much as 17 percent more for AbilityOne- manufactured uniforms compared with those made by large commercial businesses, according to a Bloomberg analysis of $2.23 billion in uniform spending by the agency during the past decade.
For example, the data provided by the agency showed it paid an average price of $33.98 for women’s Air Force coats, 17 percent more than the average price of $29.14 charged by large companies. AbilityOne contractors sold the agency Army combat coats at an average premium of 4.6 percent, for $34.67 per coat compared with $33.13.Of course, AbilityOne sounds generous when compared to the Goodwill Industries plantation. There, workers are paid as little as 22 cents an hour, while the CEO is rewarded with almost $1 million in salary and compensation.
Nationwide, according to labor journalist Mike Elk, nearly 420,000 disabled people are employed in so-called 14(C) programs exempt from labor laws enacted in the 1930s, and coordinated by state and local governments. It is because they are deemed "training programs" that some of the employers can game the system, getting away with paying more or less permanent employees mere pennies per hour:
As Working In These Times reported last March, deep divisions remain within the disability community and even among top Congressional Democrats over whether disabled workers employed in 14(c) programs should be paid below the minimum wage. Some disability advocates—led by ACCSES, which represents employers of disabled workers under the 14(c) programs—claim that these programs provide valuable training to help transition people with disabilities into jobs, and that a minimum wage requirement would make that mission impossible.
Other advocates, however, say that the programs don’t provide meaningful training and rarely lead to outside jobs. A 2001 study by the federal General Accountability Office (GAO) found that only 5 percent of workers employed in 14(c)-sheltered workplace programs left to take regular “integrated employment” jobs. These critics say the programs contribute to the well-documented cycle of poverty for those with disabilities: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a person with a disability is three times as likely to live in poverty as a person without a disability.
On Thursday, the National Council on Disability (NCD), an independent federal advisory board, issued a statement on Thursday afternoon blasting the Obama administration’s decision to exempt workers with disabilities from the minimum-wage increase.The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network has already called the president out on his specious claim that he doesn't have the authority to scrap the sub-minimum wage. Within 48 hours of his State of the Union speech, they thoughtfully provided the Legal Scholar-in-Chief with a legal memo refuting his reasoning.
Nothing is preventing Barack Obama from using his pen to give every disabled federal contract worker $10.10 an hour. Nothing, perhaps, except his own sworn allegiance to the military-industrial complex and the miracle of unfettered free market capitalism.
*Update 2/7: Mike Elk reports that the Department of Labor is suddenly rethinking the Administration's position on wages for disabled federal contractors, now that the ACLU is also lending its heft to the fight.