COVID Bill Could Finally Fix Wage Discrimination for People With Disabilities

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“It is well past time to ensure all American employees with disabilities are protected from discriminatory pay policies,” said National Council on Disability’s Andrés Gallegos.

President Joe Biden has framed his pandemic “rescue plan” as critical to addressing the enormous public health and economic damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but disability advocates hope that one provision in the legislation will finally solve a problem they have fought since far before the crisis.

Buried within the mammoth plan, set to be introduced in Congress this week, is the elimination of a little-known provision in labor law that allows some employers to pay employees with disabilities less than the minimum wage—sometimes pennies on the dollar. Advocates say that with its inclusion in Biden’s pandemic relief plan, the carveout, which dates back to the 1930s, may soon be history. But as both Republican and Democratic members of Congress voice growing sticker shock over the bill’s $1.9 trillion price tag, some fear that their best chance to end the practice could be thwarted.

“If we’re going to make any advancement in civil rights for disabled people, abolishing the sub-minimum wage would be a tremendous step,” said Jaipreet Virdi, a historian of medicine, technology, and disability at the University of Delaware. (There is disagreement among advocates about the use of the identity-first term “disabled people” versus the person-first “people with disabilities,” although the latter is more commonly used). “It would eliminate the notion of disabled people being less valuable or less productive than their able-bodied counterparts—it would mean companies could no longer legally exploit their disabled workers and allow disabled people to achieve their full potential.”

“The minimum wage should apply to all of us,” said Ari Ne’eman, a senior research associate with the Harvard Law School Project on Disability, “including people with disabilities.”

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