The “Sub-Minimum Wage” Debate

I confess, I was completely unaware of this issue, or the fact that we even have a so-called “sub-minimum wage.” Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act allows individuals with Down Syndrome or other intellectual or developmental disabilities to take certain specially regulated jobs at less than the minimum wage. The usual “raise the minimum wage” crowd wants the exception eliminated, and many states are preparing to do so. Advocates for the disabled and Down Syndrome individuals argue that it is important to keep the sub-minimum wage.

I don’t understand this controversy at all.

Opponents of eliminating the sub-minimum wage argue that it will cause many Down Syndrome individuals to lose their jobs. Of course it will, but how is this different from the fate of all the minimally skilled workers without technical disabilities who lose their jobs when the regular minimum wage is raised? Why is their plight less urgent than that of the disabled? If it is acknowledged that a sub-minimum wage keeps those who cannot perform at a level worth the minimum wage in the work force, why limit that rationale to the genetically disadvantaged?

But the opponents of killing the sub-minimum wage rely on the worst possible arguments to support keeping it. Here’s the “Dissenting Statement and Rebuttal of Commissioner Gail L. Heriot in Report of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights: Subminimum Wages: Impact on the Civil Rights of People with Disabilities. (September 17, 2020).” Heriot, one of the few conservatives on the Commission, writes,

Section 14(c) was adopted in 1938 at the same time as the first federal
minimum wage. Back then it was believedno doubt correctlythat a federal  minimum wage would cause many disabled persons to become unemployable. An exception was thus created.

(There is also a time-limited exception for youth employment.)

Why wasn’t it also believed that the same principle would apply to every other individual, handicapped or not, who was unable to perform a job worth the minimum wage? Isn’t the assumption that Down Syndrome sufferers are less employable than than the ordinary lazy, poorly educated, unmotivated and none-too-bright American low-skilled worker simple bigotry? My experience with Down Syndrome workers is that they are often better at their jobs than their non-Down peers—harder working, more polite, more reliable. If a sub-minimum wage makes sense, then a minimum wage makes no sense. Continue reading