By October 2020, no person with a disability in the state of Maryland will receive less than minimum wage for their work. Four years ago, that was not the case. Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act enabled providers to obtain certificates that allowed them to pay subminimum wage to people with disabilities. This affected about 3,600 workers. The passage of the Ken Capone Equal Employment Act in 2016 put a stop to this, outlawing 14(c) certificates and enforcing a basic civil right for people with disabilities. October of 2020 will mark the end of the phasing out period for adult service providers.
Provision 14(c) has been in effect since 1938. It was originally put in place to give training to people with disabilities to build employable skills, but over time it has become a way to segregate people with disabilities and keep them from being economically mobile. The 14(c) provision intent was to teach pre-vocational skills, but now that times have changed and assembly line work has diminished, it has become an antiquated model.
When I attended Maryland School for the Blind, my vocational training consisted of going to a place referred to as ‘the workshop.’ At the time, I thought this was unique to my school, but when I got into the disability field I realized that it wasn’t, and that this has happened to people for years. At the workshop, they had me doing menial tasks, such as shredding paper, crushing cans, or putting plastic bubbles together. You’ve probably seen the toys in plastic bubbles in gumball machines. Many of those are put together by people with disabilities, and they’re paid pennies on the dollar. I was lucky if I would end up with enough money to buy a sandwich at the school café at the end of a week.
But in 2014, People On the Go, the Maryland statewide advocacy group for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities that I am the Public Policy Specialist for, started working to change that. People On the Go represents about 400 people statewide, so we surveyed them. When we asked if people wanted to make more money and have opportunities to be with people who don’t necessarily have disabilities, the answer was an overwhelming ‘yes.’ We started there. We participated in work groups, and we saw lawsuits come into play challenging the provisions of 14(c). There was a Home and Community-Based Settings rule, which indicates that people with disabilities have to be integrated within their communities to the maximum possible extent, and also an Employment First policy initiative about better employment practices for people with disabilities. All of these things together were a perfect storm.
We got together with other advocacy groups and drafted a piece of legislation, which would eventually become known as the Ken Capone Equal Employment Act. This act views subminimum wage as a civil rights violation. The act passed the Maryland legislature within its first year in 2016, which was really a remarkable achievement for something so controversial. Maryland was only the second state to stop utilizing 14(c) by legislation. I think what made our efforts so successful was that they were led by individuals with disabilities. We brought provider agencies and state entities to the table, but ultimately people with disabilities were the ones leading the effort.
Since 2016, we have seen more conversations with people with disabilities about what it is they actually want to do with their time. There’s more emphasis on greater community integration and having conversations with people about the work, or even non-work, that they find meaningful. It’s not a-one-size-fits-all. I remember hearing a very powerful story from a colleague of mine in the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Administration. She said she was approached by parents, who were originally against the idea of their son not being able to participate in sheltered work. Through having discussions with him, though, they realized what it was that he wanted to do with his time. They actually started listening to him in a way they weren’t before, and it was really powerful and moving to hear. Ever since our act passed, we’ve seen greater emphasis on discussions like these. The hard numbers say that we started out with 41 providers in Maryland utilizing sheltered work under 14(c) certificates, and now we’re down to 4. By the end of October 2020, there will be none.