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Does the subminimum wage exploit disabled workers?

With a stroke of his pen on an executive order, President Obama recently required all federal contractors to pay workers at least a minimum wage of $10.10. The order included disabled workers, a partial triumph for activists who have long argued that's it's past time to end so-called sheltered workshops, where disabled employees can be paid subminimum wages.

The order extends only to workers employed by federal contractors, so the victory is incomplete. However, there are some who argue that many disabled workers would lose any realistic chance of employment if sheltered workshops were shuttered across New Jersey and the nation.

A spokesperson for a sheltered workshop near Chicago says employees with severe intellectual disabilities might not be able to get a job elsewhere. They might not understand the monetary value of a paycheck, but" they know they are receiving a paycheck so they are getting a lot of self-esteem," he says.

Disability advocacy groups say sheltered workshops too often pay workers pennies per hour, relegating employees to lives of exploitation, isolation and poverty.

The head of the National Disability Rights Network says the workshops might have at one time been useful, but that time passed decades ago. Today, the emphasis is on helping disabled workers move into the mainstream labor market.

Being part of that market means workers earn competitive pay with a ground floor set at the federal minimum wage.

For those prevented by illness or injury from continuing in their jobs, Social Security Disability Insurance can be a vital lifeline. An SSDI attorney can help explain the claim and appeals process.

Source: National Public Radio, "Subminimum Wages For The Disabled: Godsend Or Exploitation?" Cheryl Corley, April 23, 2014

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