May 2024
A factory worker with a disability stencils a board. He is at a bench in a workshop, focused on the task and leaning over his work. Other workbenches and people are in the background.

This article was originally published on April 26 in MinnPost, an independent, non-profit newsroom. The article has been updated to include recent actions in the Minnesota legislature.

By Brian C. Begin

As we debate what constitutes a livable wage in Minnesota – with the current $15.57 an hour minimum wage in Minneapolis and St. Paul considered by many to be inadequate to cover living costs here – be aware that there is a group of workers earning far, far less.

This is legal because Section 14c of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 allows employers to pay workers with disabilities less than minimum wage. Initially created to boost employment for people with disabilities, it now keeps many in poverty without opportunities for advancement. It is time to phase out the 14c Special Wage certificate. We don’t need this relic of the past.

Today, approximately 40,500 workers with disabilities nationwide are paid under this certificate, including approximately 3,100 in Minnesota, according to the U.S. Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division . Minnesota has the dubious distinction of having the second-highest rate per capita of people with disabilities earning subminimum wages. Other states with high rates of people with disabilities earning subminimum wages include Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.

For nearly a decade, I worked for a service provider and managed a team of direct support professionals (DSPs). In 2017, we let go of the 14c Special Wage certificate to focus solely on community employment at or above minimum wage. There was anxiety during this transition from people receiving services, their parents and guardians, and other members of their support teams. We approached our business partners and were able to re-negotiate our contracts and bring people’s wages up to the minimum. Some employers we had contracts with were unaware that some individuals doing the work were paid below minimum wage. The response from our business partners was overwhelmingly positive, with some choosing to hire folks directly. One business decided to end their contract with us, and my team used a person-centered, customized approach to find every one of those workers competitive jobs in their community. Change is scary, and the transition took time and planning, but the sky did not fall. No one lost services or found themselves sitting at home, and our doors did not shut.

In 2015, our state created the Minnesota Olmstead Plan , named for a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found “unjustified segregation of people with disabilities is a form of unlawful discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.” The plan outlines a vision of becoming a place where people with disabilities live, work, learn, and enjoy life in the most integrated setting possible. In 2020, the state legislature codified Minnesota’s Employment First Policy into law. It’s time to live up to it.

In January, Minnesota’s Olmstead Implementation Office released an update on our state’s Employment goals for people with disabilities. Unfortunately, we are not meeting our goals of helping people with disabilities get competitive, integrated jobs through Vocational Rehabilitation Services and State Services for the Blind or those who receive services from some Medicaid-funded programs.

For the last year, I have worked at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration on a project called the Minnesota Transformation Initiative, or MTI. MTI is a project funded by the Minnesota Department of Human Services to support transitioning people with disabilities receiving subminimum wages into competitive, integrated employment. Through individualized technical assistance to provider agencies, statewide training opportunities, and peer mentoring and education for self-advocates and families, MTI is part of a statewide effort to support more people with disabilities in finding competitive jobs in their communities. MTI has been working with eight providers across the state to develop and implement individualized transition plans to drop their 14c Special Wage certificate. Again, there have been challenges throughout the transition for the providers and the people they serve, but more people are working in competitive paying jobs in the community than before. Providers have shared their stories about their challenges and successes throughout their transitions. The MTI project demonstrates that when the proper supports and technical assistance are available, providers can successfully transition to providing community employment to individuals they serve and no one loses services.

Minnesota benefits in several ways by making sure people with disabilities have opportunities to find competitive jobs in the community. Competitive employment is one way out of poverty, and it expands people’s skills, which creates new workers who can fill jobs as labor shortages continue. Working together in the community benefits individuals. Work provides people with and without disabilities more opportunities to expand their social networks. When I think about the friends I’ve made at work over the years, I realize I probably never would have met them elsewhere. Having a job that you enjoy and are good at benefits your mental health.

Advances in assistive technology and training are helping people with disabilities find and keep jobs in the community they enjoy. Phasing out 14c Special Wage certificates alone won’t remove all the barriers to employment for people with disabilities. According to Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development, there is a significant gap in employment rates for people with and without disabilities. And even entry-level jobs paying minimum wage – as advocates have pointed out – don’t truly provide a living wage, but it’s a start.

Legislation has been introduced in the 2023 and 2024 legislative sessions in St. Paul to phase out the use of 14c Special Wage certificates to ensure fair wages for people with disabilities in Minnesota. Unfortunately, this language was amended at the end of both sessions. It’s up to us to let our elected officials know these certificates are outdated and harmful and that better options exist for people with disabilities to live full lives in the community.