Editor’s Note: Our conversations with Brian, Raquel, and Kirk occurred between May 4 and May 23, 2022. Information on the Minnesota Task Force on Eliminating Subminimum Wages in this story may not be up to date.
In 2017, Lifeworks Services decided to stop providing subminimum wage employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Like many other disability service providers, Lifeworks held a special wage certificate authorized under section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act for decades that allowed folks who accessed our services to make less than minimum wage at their jobs. Commonly referred to as a “14(c) certificate,” it allows employers to pay workers less than the federal minimum wage through piece rate work. Workers are compensated based on their productivity and earn a set amount per item or task.
Over the years, Lifeworks evolved how we partner with people with disabilities and emphasized a focus on competitive wage work and community employment. The decision not to renew our special wage certificate rested on our values of inclusion, independence, and, ultimately, self-determination. Change is rarely easy, but our commitment to learning from and listening to those with lived experience led us to adjust our approach to encourage equity and increase choice.
Background on subminimum wages for people with disabilities
Initially, the passing of section 14(c) in the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 provided an opportunity for people with disabilities to participate in the workforce. Employers with a 14(c) certificate often established “sheltered workshops” which employed people with disabilities but segregated them from the rest of the workforce. This piece rate work often included a pre-determined benchmark of how many pieces a worker “should” produce in a set amount of time. Employers set the pay based on those benchmarks and often did not consider barriers to meeting the benchmark. While working in these segregated environments, workers with disabilities could not reap any of the benefits of integrated employment, like being included in the workplace culture.
Even as current trends point to more organizations across the state of Minnesota deciding to discontinue operating with a 14(c) certificate, about 3,700 people with disabilities were still being paid a subminimum wage in April 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. Nationwide, roughly 44,000 people with disabilities still earn less than the federal minimum wage.
A new trajectory for Lifeworks
Lifeworks’ decision not to renew our 14(c) certificate was multi-faceted.
“Some of [the decision] came from the people we serve wanting new work opportunities,” says Brian Begin, Lifeworks Program Manager. “As we embraced a self-directed model of service at Lifeworks, we knew honoring choice would be the driver behind our employment services. We acknowledged that opportunities to explore work outside of sheltered workshops weren’t always available for people with disabilities.”
“A lot of people with disabilities have spent most of their lives never being asked what they want,” says Raquel Sidie-Wagner, Lifeworks Regional Manager and Legislative and Policy Lead. Those who earned subminimum wage may not have had the chance to explore different options. It was on us as an organization to not just give agency to those we serve to make decisions but recognize that everyone already has agency. We needed to step back and assess how we could best support people with disabilities.
We also asked ourselves if the resources devoted to holding the certificate could be better utilized elsewhere. What if we focused these dollars on finding more integrated competitive employment instead? Answering this question meant listening to the people we serve and our job coaches, who support them as they make career decisions.
Change is scary, but we can embrace it
Until 2017, Kirk earned piece rate pay at Peace Coffee through a contract with Lifeworks while working alongside other people with disabilities. He earned wages based on how many bags of coffee he could label by hand throughout a shift.
When Lifeworks stopped supporting piece rate work, Kirk looked for a new job in the community. Throughout the transition, Kirk worked with Lifeworks staff to explore new career options and consider what he wanted to do next. “I found out that Lifeworks wasn’t doing piece rate anymore, and they were going to focus more on helping us get [directly hired]. While I understand sort of why they tried the jobs for me they did, none of them were good fits for me,” Kirk recalls. “We, as providers and staff, have a lot of power. If we are really advocating for people with disabilities, that can have a powerful influence in helping them explore greater opportunities,” says Brian.
We, as providers and staff, have a lot of power. If we are really advocating for people with disabilities, that can have a powerful influence in helping them explore greater opportunities.
Raquel adds, “the way we move forward and allow for people to tell us what they want and need is to give them the space to know that they will continue to have the support they need [no matter what].”
“If you’ve only ever experienced a specific kind of work and paid in a specific kind of way, then change can be scary for anyone. When Lifeworks made this decision, we did get some push back from some family members who felt like we were taking away from their loved one’s work opportunity. We had a lot of tough conversations,” shares Brian. The feedback we received regarding our decision was valid, especially considering that this work model had been standard at Lifeworks for a long time. We knew how important it was to ensure our exit from this model would lead to more positive outcomes for those we serve.
After waiting to find the right job, Kirk heard from Peace Coffee, “I had almost given up hope, but then [Lifeworks] informed me that Peace Coffee specifically wants you back.”
As more self-advocates and organizations like Lifeworks have spoken out against subminimum wage work, businesses in Minnesota have also continued to evolve. Peace Coffee decided to offer at least minimum wage work and to hire people with disabilities directly. This change enhanced their company culture, improved productivity, and allowed employees to advance their skill sets. For Kirk, this was an opportunity to continue doing what he loves, “It feels to me like I’m more of an employee when instead of getting paid by piece, I’m getting paid by the hour. Another benefit is the fact that you’re at the job. People recognize that you are at least a good worker.”
Lifeworks helped many people transition from subminimum wage or piece rate work by navigating options and identifying how to break down barriers to employment. Brian notes that when Lifeworks exited our 14(c) certificate, “the majority of folks who were doing subminimum wage work were able to transition to competitive, integrated employment.”
In addition to working again at Peace Coffee, Kirk now earns a competitive, fair wage that isn’t dependent on his productivity.”Earning a fair wage is a big responsibility. I really think that earning a higher wage always feels good. It’s like the difference between a job interview and actually being a part of the job. Now I actually feel wanted,” Kirk says.
Earning a fair wage is a big responsibility. I really think that earning a higher wage always feels good. It’s like the difference between a job interview and actually being a part of the job. Now I actually feel wanted.
Creating a plan to end subminimum wage in Minnesota
Some states, including Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, have already implemented a policy to end subminimum wage work entirely. Other states, such as California, Hawaii, and Washington, have established an end date for the practice. Minnesota has one of the highest numbers of people earning subminimum wages.
However, following the broader national movements, Minnesota is now poised to phase out the use of subminimum wages. In 2021, the state legislature authorized the use of federal dollars to create and fund the Task Force on Eliminating Subminimum Wages and grants to assist providers in making the transition. The task force’s goal is to create a plan and make recommendations to end subminimum wages for people with disabilities by August 1, 2025.
“Say tomorrow subminimum wage ended. A lot of people with disabilities would be negatively impacted by that. They would be out of work, their service provider might not be able to stay open, and they wouldn’t have adequate access to services or supports. The idea behind the task force is to build a plan for Minnesota to exit subminimum wage that will have the least harmful impacts on the people earning subminimum wage,” Raquel shares. “By November of this year, [the task force is] expected to have a plan to present to the legislature.”
In January 2022, the Department of Human Services appointed Raquel to serve as a member of the task force as a representative of an organization that has successfully transitioned away from subminimum wage work. Raquel is the only member in the group with this experience. Other members of the task force include those with lived experience, someone who has earned subminimum wage under a 14(c) certificate, and representatives from disability service providers. Although people with different perspectives on subminimum wage make up the task force, it hasn’t been without criticism. “It’s been a really interesting session,” Raquel shares, “simply because there is a lot of work to try and undermine the task force. In the legislature right now, there is language in the Senate’s Health and Human Services omnibus bill to adjust the goal of the task force.” The proposed language would shift the focus away from ending subminimum wage and focus only on expanding employment opportunities for people with disabilities. The proposal would also add parents and more people working under 14(c) as members. “There’s been a lot of work behind the scenes to maintain the goal of the task force. Should this pass, then the task force will change entirely,” says Raquel.
Brian recently represented Lifeworks at a Minnesota House of Representatives Human Services Finance and Policy Committee meeting and expressed our support of the task force and its original goals.
Brian testified because he knew “Lifeworks could provide some concrete statistics of the amount of folks that were making subminimum wage and how many transitioned into competitive, integrated employment. Policymakers may not have worked in the field of services for the disability community and may not know anybody in their personal lives who have a disability. They’re making important decisions about policy that has significant impacts on what services and supports look like.”
Raquel expressed how important it was for Brian to share Lifeworks’ successful exit from 14(c), “I think a lot of what you see in the argument against [the task force] is the fear of what will happen. Lifeworks can say the sky will not fall.”
I think a lot of what you see in the argument against [the task force] is the fear of what will happen. Lifeworks can say the sky will not fall.
Centering lived experience and bringing everyone on board
As we envision a Minnesota without subminimum wage work, we must center the perspectives of people with disabilities. Raquel says that people who have had success in subminimum wage work and who worry about a future without it “are at the center of the conversation since they’re the people who are going to be most impacted by this. There is something to be said for not wanting to just pull the rug from underneath them.”
After experiencing subminimum wage work and pursuing an opportunity to do work he enjoys while being fairly compensated, Kirk decided to advocate for others to have the same opportunity. Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kirk spoke in front of a committee of the Minnesota legislature.
“I was testifying to help people who have disabilities to get jobs and allow them more opportunities,” says Kirk. It was Kirk’s first testimonial, and he acknowledged, “I can’t say that it wasn’t scary,” while chuckling.
During the transition away from piece rate work, Kirk often felt that his choices in finding a new job were not always honored. This led him to advocate for himself so that Lifeworks could better partner with him to explore employment options. This partnership led to Lifeworks asking him to share his experience via testimony. He remembers thinking, “it sounds like an interesting thing to do, and it’s something that would help others. I’m all about helping others.”
Ultimately, Kirk believes that the state should discontinue subminimum wage work for people with disabilities. He expresses his caution as the Task Force on Eliminating Subminimum Wages begins developing recommendations, “One of the things I’m worried about is that it’s going to make it harder for people to get their jobs. Employers might not be willing to [pay] minimum wage for certain people. Certain jobs might just cease to be available.”
His concern is warranted, as some businesses chose not to hire employees directly after 14(c) contracts were ended with Lifeworks. “I’m not advocating for keeping subminimum wage,” Kirk clarifies. “I would love to see subminimum wage ended. I also want us to be careful about how it gets ended. [I want the task force to] make sure to think it completely through because I don’t want it to be a well-intentioned thing and then people lose their jobs and income over it.”
While Brian, Raquel, and Lifeworks stress the importance of integrated, competitive employment, we can’t dismiss Kirk’s concerns, which many share. Raquel acknowledges, “a lot of fear of what opportunities will be available are particularly coming from greater Minnesota. Maybe the economy doesn’t support the type of work that needs to be available for the community that’s there.” Brian adds, “employment opportunities and service opportunities in greater Minnesota are different from the metro area.” Even if opportunities are available in greater Minnesota, other challenges, such as transportation, can prevent folks from accessing integrated, competitive employment. The solution to ending subminimum wage work needs to be comprehensive and system wide.
Brian says, “as we transition away from 14(c) work, it is important that those providers [with concerns] get the support they need financially and the technical assistance to successfully make this transition. There are plenty of organizations, Lifeworks included, who are more than happy to work with providers.” Raquel adds, “There’s never been a better job market for job seekers. If you’re concerned about the opportunities available to people, now’s the time to [start transitioning]. If you walk down Main Street in any small town, every store has a ‘now hiring’ sign. This current moment is really the time to try it.”
What happens next?
The Task Force on Eliminating Subminimum Wages meets monthly to continue forming recommendations to provide the state legislature. The legislature has asked the task force to submit their recommendations in February 2023 if subminimum wages are to be phased out by August 2025. To keep updated on their progress, you can check out the task force’s webpage on the Minnesota Department of Human Services website.
We all can play a part in this work by learning more about disability justice, the fight to end subminimum wages, and how to ensure the voices of people with disabilities are heard.
“The Arc Minnesota has great resources for self-advocates for public policy at the state and federal level,” Brian shares. “Do a Google search of 14(c) subminimum wage and briefly learn the history of it and what the nuances are. It’s an eye-opening experience.”
Raquel recommends, “Find things that are being made by people with disabilities or at least centering them. The movie ‘Crip Camp’ is a really good example because they talk very specifically about how the ADA came to be and how hard that was and how much work they had to do.” Raquel suggests making our voices heard by “establishing relationships with your legislators, particularly local officials such as your city council member or state legislator. Establishing a relationship with a legislator allows more direct access. They want their community interacting with them. They want experts on things that they can go to.” Brian concurs and tallies on, “Tell them how you, as a person with lived experience, want them to vote on specific legislation.”
At the bottom of this story, we have put together a list of all the links used in this story as well as some additional resources created by Lifeworks covering topics such as ableism, inclusion in the workforce, more information on the exit from our 14(c) certificate, and more.
We want to thank Brian, Raquel, and Kirk for devoting time to provide their knowledge and explore their perspectives with us.
Full list of resources mentioned or linked in this blog.