Issue spotlight. Women-centered. Reliable facts. Edition 11

Welcome to the Eleventh Edition of The Thread. This is a special edition because it’s published in honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) – the month of October. We feature a diverse slate of perspectives in the hopes that our readers gain a holistic understanding of the issues surrounding disability employment and potential solutions. We begin with an interview with the bipartisan Senate co-sponsors of the Transformation to Competitive Integrated Employment Act (TCIEA), Senators Bob Casey and Steve Daines; move to a piece from leadership at Melwood, a former 14(c) certificate holder who successfully transitioned to a competitive integrated employment model for their employees with disabilities; feature a corporate perspective from Microsoft, who has committed to competitive wages for their disabled employees and holds their suppliers to the same standard, ensuring that no suppliers hold 14(c) certificates; and close with an event highlight of the congressional staff briefing we hosted on October 25th in the Capitol Building.

We are grateful to Microsoftfor their support of this edition and for providing much of the data and background we use to set the stage for our readers.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are about61 millionpeople with disabilities in the United States, representing26%of the population. However, only19.3%of people with disabilities were employed in 2019, compared to66.3%of people without disabilities. Moreover,one in fourAmericans with disabilities lives in poverty, and many of them rely on public assistance programs such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid. These programs often have income and asset limits that discourage people with disabilities from working or earning more, creating a “poverty trap” that is hard to escape.

One of the factors that contributes to the low employment and high poverty rates of people with disabilities is subminimum wage. Under Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers can apply for special certificates from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to pay workers with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage, which is currently $7.25 per hour. There is no minimum floor for the hourly wage that an employer can pay an individual with a disability under 14(c) certificates. According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, between 2017 and 2018, the average wage of a person with a disability working under a 14(c) certificate was $3.34 per hour, and some workers earned as little as $0.04 per hour. An estimated 141,081 people were paid under 14(c) certificates in 2018, according to the National Council on Disability.

Most of the workers with disabilities who are paid subminimum wage work in sheltered workshops, which are segregated settings that exclusively or primarily employ people with disabilities. Sheltered workshops often provide low-skill, low-demand, and low-productivity tasks, such as sorting, packaging, or assembling products.

Sheltered workshops are supposed to provide vocational training and rehabilitation services to help workers with disabilities transition to competitive integrated employment (CIE), but in reality many workers stay in sheltered workshops for years or decades, without receiving meaningful skills development or career advancement opportunities.

Sheltered workshops also isolate workers with disabilities from the rest of society, limiting their social interactions, community integration, and self-determination.

Subminimum wage and sheltered workshops are based on the outdated and paternalistic assumption that people with disabilities are incapable of performing regular work and need to be protected from the competitive labor market. However, this assumption contradicts the evidence that shows that people with disabilities can and do succeed in CIE, with the appropriate supports and accommodations. Competitive Integrated Employment is not only beneficial for workers with disabilities, but also for employers, who can access a diverse and talented pool of workers, and for society, which can reduce the costs of public assistance and increase the tax revenues from and economic contributions of people with disabilities.

Credit to Rylin Rodgers, Microsoft.

The Engage perspective is informed by the host of areas where we see disability employment issues and women’s economic security intersect. This intersection spans constituencies all over the country and demands commensurate attention.

The majority of the 1 in 4 American adults living with a disability are women. If you include caregivers – also mostly women – and families, the total number of Americans connected to the disability community grows to well over 100 million.

Women with disabilities make about 72 cents for every dollar earned by disabled men, and poverty rates – already higher for the disability community at large – are substantially higher for disabled women.

Given this reality, it is not an exaggeration to say women with disabilities are some of the most economically disadvantaged Americans in the country.

The third edition of The Thread was also dedicated to the disability community, issues around employment, and solutions at the federal level. When we highlighted TCIEA in that edition, it was only a bipartisan effort on the House side, with cosponsors Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Rep. Bobby Scott. Since then, we’ve seen the Senate version, sponsored by Senator Bob Casey, become bipartisan with the addition of Senator Steve Daines as the lead co-sponsor.

We are so excited to feature these Senate leaders in this edition.

[1] Women with Disabilities and the Labor Market, Office of Disability Employment Policy, United States Department of Labor, Aug. 2023.
[2] Kim. “The Intersection of Disability and Feminism: Why Disability Rights Matter to Feminists Today.” National Organization for Women, 11 Apr. 2023.
[3] Women with Disabilities and the Labor Market, Office of Disability Employment Policy, United States Department of Labor, Aug. 2023.

Why is TCIEA needed, and how does it improve economic outcomes for working Americans with disabilities?

Senator Casey: People with disabilities deserve to be compensated fairly for their work, and just like for other Americans, the minimum wage should be the floor for compensation, not the ceiling. Transitioning people with disabilities into Competitive Integrated Employment (CIE) empowers them to contribute their skills and talents to their communities and earn an honest living. The impact of fair compensation cannot be understated for this population who experience poverty at double the rates of their nondisabled peers and require 28 percent more income to achieve the same standard of living as households without a disability. The outdated idea that paying subminimum wages does them any favors only serves the businesses that profit off their labor.

Fourteen states have passed legislation to eliminate subminimum wages for people with disabilities. If states are taking action, why is it important to address ending subminimum wage at the federal level?

Senator Casey: I applaud the fourteen states that have passed legislation to eliminate the subminimum wage and have helped businesses change their models to pay disabled employees at least minimum wage. I encourage others to follow suit. However, matters of civil rights should not be left to the states alone. Paying people with disabilities less than minimum wage based solely on their disability is discriminatory. It is time for this practice to end. Despite an overall decline in the number of employers using subminimum wage payments to people with disabilities, the Department of Labor continues to issue new certificates to allow businesses to pay subminimum wages. Since January of this year, DOL has issued dozens of initial certificates to businesses allowing them to pay subminimum wages to people with disabilities. An important first step in phasing out subminimum wages for people with disabilities would be to place an immediate moratorium on the issuance of new 14(c) certificates. I urge the DOL to do so as soon as possible.

How does TCIEA support businesses of all sizes make the transition from the sheltered workshop model to the integrated employment model?

Senator Casey: Everybody wants to see positive outcomes for all workers. We recognize that states and employers will need support and guidance to ensure successful transitions from a subminimum wage model of employment to a fair wage model. That is why TCIEA will gradually phase out the subminimum wage certificates over five years and why it will provide guidance and support to states and employers to make the transition to paying at least minimum wage to workers with disabilities. This support includes establishing a national resource center to provide technical assistance and grants to states and employers to ensure they have the resources they need to achieve the best outcomes for workers. People with disabilities are resourceful, dedicated, and resilient workers. I have no doubt they can be excellent employees in a fair wage business model that provides support and coaching. It is time for our workforce, and our society, to let go of the outdated and prejudiced idea that a person’s work means less because a person has a disability. Their work has value, and it is time that we pay them what they deserve.

Why is TCIEA needed, and how does it improve economic outcomes for working Americans with disabilities?

Senator Daines: Montanans with disabilities contribute to our communities and their work is valuable—they should never be paid below minimum wage. There is dignity and hope in work, so we should be doing all we can to expand opportunity and ensure fair pay to Montanans with disabilities in the workforce. Having a job and contributing to your community is a source of pride and ensuring no one is paid less simply because of a disability helps folks build independence and feel fulfilled.

Fourteen states have passed legislation to eliminate subminimum wages for people with disabilities. If states are taking action, why is it important to address ending subminimum wage at the federal level?

Senator Daines: Legislation enacted by these states is a step in the right direction, but the origin of this issue stems back to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 which allows folks with disabilities to be paid less than their colleagues, if they are “in training.” Unfortunately, that creates a loophole that allows businesses to pay their workers with disabilities less than minimum wage and it is unacceptable. We need to close this loophole across the board and ensure all workers are paid fairly.

How does TCIEA support businesses of all sizes make the transition from the sheltered workshop model to the integrated employment model?

Senator Daines: The TCIEA was designed to support businesses throughout and make the transition as smooth as possible. As a former business executive, I recognize that extensive planning and time is necessary to implement such a significant change. Furthermore, I have serious concerns about unfunded mandates that are handed down from Washington, which is why TCIEA includes grants to smooth the glide path to competitive integrated employment.

People with disabilities have a right to meaningful, dignified employment where they are paid wages that are comparable to those of their co-workers without disabilities.

What seems like a pretty straightforward sentiment has actually been a recurring legislative battle at the federal and state levels for decades.

As one of the largest employers of people with disabilities on the East Coast and as an employer that formerly held a 14(c) certificate, Melwood calls on Congress to pass legislation ending the use of these certificates, for good.

Tawana Freeman began working with us at Melwood almost 30 years ago, back when we held a 14(c) certificate and paid subminimum wages to employees with disabilities. Under the law, the method to set the wage is determined by employer-administered timed trials every six months to compare a disabled employee’s work output and speed to that of non-disabled employees. As a single mother of three children at the time, she remembers feeling immense pressure to perform well for the time trials every six months to avoid pay cuts. Every time it was cut, it forced her to rely on her family and friends to help her pay her bills and brought uncertainty to her home and living situation.

Melwood voluntarily gave up our certificate nine years ago because we recognized the detrimental impacts the policy had on our employees. We recommitted ourselves to ensuring every worker receives full pay for their work. Doing so has allowed our employees to take charge of their lives and become self-sufficient and financially independent.

Tawana still works at Melwood and no longer has to ask anyone for money now that she knows what pay to expect, creating stability in her life: “We feel normal, like we’re regular work people [who] go into work and get paid for our eight hours, and it feels wonderful.”

The longstanding practice of paying people with disabilities lower than the minimum wage reinforces the discriminatory premise that people with disabilities are not fully capable and productive workers. It is this bigotry of low expectations that foreshadows, and often directly causes a life of poverty, segregation, and dependency on public support for the people that we support.

Yet, the elimination of 14(c) certificates continues to be a source of heated discussion for a couple of reasons. Employers still utilizing it argue its elimination will result in job losses for people with disabilities. Additionally, some family members of these employees fear the law’s elimination will make it harder for their loved ones in a society that is still in many ways not inclusive or accommodating for certain disabilities.

At Melwood, we have proven that with proper training and adequate support, people with disabilities can be employed in competitive integrated employment and supported employment without the need for 14(c). Today, our bottom line has never been better, our morale has never been higher and our productivity has never been greater. In fact, we pay an average of $17.67 an hour and offer full benefits for our workforce, in addition to providing job training and placement and support services for the broader community of people with disabilities.

To end this practice across the country, Congress must pass the Transformation to Competitive Integrated Employment Act, helping other employees with disabilities like Tawana enjoy peace of mind, financial freedom and room for growth and success in their careers.

TCIEA has been introduced in previous years but hasn’t yet gotten the traction it deserves. Yet broader dissatisfaction with subminimum wage policy and calls for change have continued, and fourteen states have eliminated the use of 14(c) subminimum wages in recent years. In 2023, Melwood successfully led a coalition to permanently eliminate the use of 14(c) subminimum wages in Virginia in 2030.

If you are interested in joining the fight for a more inclusive economy and community that fosters economic independence for people with disabilities, please consider reviewing the ways to get involved with Melwood today.

Microsoft is committed to closing the disability divide. You may be most familiar with our effort to develop more accessible technology across our industry and the economy, and that is a critical starting point to ensuring technology creates opportunities for more people with disabilities to enter the workforce and to building a workplace that is more inclusive for people with disabilities. Our focus and experience motivate us to use our voice to advocate for public policies that advance employment equity for people with disabilities, including the elimination of subminimum wage. We believe that subminimum wage is outdated, discriminatory, and reinforcing of a life of poverty, segregation, and dependency on public support for people with disabilities. Microsoft supports phasing out 14(c) with capacity-building for Community Integrated Employment (CIE) and is advocating for the passage of the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act (S. 533, H.R. 1263)., a bipartisan bill that would provide states, service providers, subminimum wage certificate holders, and other agencies with the resources they need to create CIE service delivery models and the inclusive wraparound services that some individuals with disabilities will need when subminimum wage is phased out.

Microsoft’s policy position on ending subminimum wage for people with disabilities is based on the following rationale:

  • Subminimum wage is inconsistent with Microsoft’s mission, which is to empower every person and every organization to achieve more. This cannot happen without the talents of people with disabilities as part of the workforce. We believe that people with disabilities are a strength for the company and a talent pool that adds not only diversity but expertise and empathy that make its products, services, and culture better. As you use technology you are likely benefiting from these contributions:

    Swetha Machanavajhala, a software engineer who is deaf, identified the need to create the blurred background that is now widely used in during Microsoft Teams meetings because it allowed her to better focus on lip-reading with less distraction in the background.

    Our book, The Ability Hacks, shares the behind-the-scenes stories of the hackers who pioneered two innovative hacks-turned-solutions used today by people with disabilities around the world.

  • Subminimum wage is contrary to Microsoft’s values of inclusion, which are reflected in its inclusive hiring programs, such as the Supported Employment Program and the Neurodiversity Hiring Program. These programs aim to create a welcoming and accessible workplace for people with disabilities, where they can thrive and grow in their careers. We do not pay less than the applicable minimum wage, and we require suppliers make the same commitment, because we believe in fair wages for all. In 2019, we added new language to our Supplier Code of Conduct to reconfirm the obligation of all of our suppliers to pay the applicable minimum wage to everyone and to prohibit the holding of a 14c certificate.

  • Subminimum wage is detrimental to Microsoft’s business interests, as it limits the potential market and customer base for its products and services. Microsoft’s accessibility features and tools are designed to empower workers with disabilities to achieve more in their jobs and in their lives. By supporting the transition from subminimum wage and sheltered workshops to CIE, Microsoft can help create more demand and opportunities for its accessibility solutions. We share our experience supporting transitions and growing a supported employment program in a series of free open access tool kits and trainings.

Microsoft’s policy position to urge passage of the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act, ending subminimum wage for people with disabilities, is based on its commitment to advancing employment equity, inclusion, and accessibility for people with disabilities. Subminimum wage is a relic of the past that harms the dignity, rights, and potential of people with disabilities, and CIE is the future that offers opportunities, benefits, and supports for workers with disabilities, employers, and society. Microsoft supports policy change to phase out subminimum wage and promote CIE, and it is ready to collaborate with its partners and stakeholders to make this vision a reality.

Over 500 people have been hired in our supported employment program supporting our campus in over 40 different job types. We would love for you to meet some of those who are contributing to our business:

Casey Chandler
Atlanta, Georgia

Meet Casey Chandler, Workplace Experience Receptionist working for CBRE, at the Microsoft Atlantic Yards location in Georgia, United States.

You will find Casey in the South Lobby at the main reception desk, greeting and assisting those entering Atlantic Yards. He is genuine and joyful in his interactions with employees entering the building, adding to the excitement of entering their place of work.

Casey is well versed in the surrounding areas of the Atlanta community. He makes conversation with FTEs, and guests alike, and is extremely pleasant when assisting with the Microsoft touch departure kiosks technology. In Casey’s words, “I know this city in and out, so when I use kiosks, I am just telling fun facts about Atlanta and showing them where to go.”

Casey enjoys learning about the Microsoft technology he uses at work every day. He says it was intimidating at first but with practice, he has gotten more comfortable. Casey is now able to leverage the technology to provide the highest quality service to the Microsoft lobby experience.

Logistics Team
Puget Sound, Washington

Supported Employees play an essential role in the Logistics work CBRE performs for Microsoft in the Puget Sound. The Logistics team handles a huge volume of mail and packages arriving and departing from the Microsoft Corporate headquarters every month.

Logistics team members include Noah Ullstrom, Madison Davis, and Frank Hartmanns. They keep the team humming along and provide excellent services every day.

On October 25, 2023, in recognition of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, Engage hosted a Bipartisan Breakfast Briefing in the U.S. Capitol Building. The program provided a comprehensive overview of disability employment and featured many of the authors that contributed to this newsletter. Congressional staff from nearly 30 offices – House and Senate, Democratic and Republican – came together to learn about ways their offices can get involved in this issue.

Michael Gamel-McCormick, Disability Policy Director for Senator Bob Casey at the Senate Special Committee on Aging, laid the foundation with a detailed history of disability employment and subminimum wage over the last century.

Jewelyn Cosgrove, Vice President of Government and Public Relations at Melwood, related a firsthand account from a business that has transitioned from a 14(c)-certified sheltered workshop to a competitive, integrated workplace for individuals with disabilities.

Rylin Rodgers, Disability Policy Director at Microsoft, shared the corporate perspective as a demonstrated leader in the effort to remove subminimum wage models from corporate supply chains and beyond.

Sara Hart Weir, Executive Director of the Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities, presented an analysis of the state-level legislative landscape, specifically in Kansas, and discussed state-led initiatives to promote competitive opportunities for individuals with disabilities.

The event closed with Q&A with the audience, where attendees got to ask specific questions about the mechanics of the legislation and the anticipated impacts.

Let us know what you think!

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