Opposition to legislation targeting 14(c) workers grows

Since 1938, the United States Department of Labor has provided opportunities through Section 14(c) certificates to provide every American with a chance to work. These certificates allow employers to hire intellectually and developmentally disabled individuals at wages below the federal minimum and set up “workshops” to provide support for these workers. Despite the incredible strides our nation has made to promote inclusivity and dignity in the workplace for Americans with disabilities, new legislation in Illinois threatens to eliminate these programs entirely. As a result, many concerned legislators are speaking out.

In the 2023 spring legislative session, HB 793, sponsored by Rep. Theresa Mah, was first heard on the House Floor. The Bill, titled the “Dignity in Pay Act”, contained several provisions, most prominently, text that would end the issuing of Section 14(c) certificates to employers. Rep. Mah and several other legislators have suggested that, instead of supporting the 14(c) programs cherished by so many disabled workers, these programs should be eliminated and employers should be required to pay workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities according to normal minimum wage standards.

The argument against 14(c) programs is primarily based on the assertion that paying workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities a subminimum wage is discriminatory. U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois), who co-sponsored similar legislation at the federal level, went as far as to say that 14(c) programs allow for a “really terrible practice of paying workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities.” While the calls to increase wages for workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities are likely well-intentioned, ending the issuance of 14(c) certificates could be catastrophic.

The issue with forcing programs that hire individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities to pay them a minimum wage is that it is not economically feasible. “A lot of the workers work at 12% of what a normal worker works. In a 10-hour time, they’ll pay that worker $140 where one college student could do that same work in 1 hour,” said Representative Charlie Meier (R-Okawville). Rep. Meier, who has long been an advocate for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, has highlighted that requiring minimum wage pay would ultimately harm workers with these disabilities. “There are 3,591 clients, we believe, in the state of Illinois. Where this has been done in other states, a lot of times, 70 to 80% of these residents never work again.”

Rep. Meier’s claims are substantially supported by research done at the federal level. When analyzing SB 2488, legislation proposed at the federal level intended to eliminate 14(c) certificates, the Congressional Budget Office stated that “larger mandated wage increases would cause larger increases in joblessness. The increase in joblessness might also be relatively large because the disabled workers affected by this section are less productive.”

Opponents of 14(c) programs often insist that expensive day programs are better alternatives for adults with these disabilities and cite that the programs have job trainers to help disabled individuals find work. However, despite promoting these programs, Illinois has cut the number of job trainers in recent years by nearly 14% according to Rep. Meier. Moreover, the Illinoisans who would be funneled into these day programs would much rather stay where they are. “They don’t want a day program five days a week,” said Rep. Meier. “They want to work. They want to be proud of their jobs”

House Bill 793, if passed, would also negatively impact disabled workers who do find themselves working minimum wage jobs. Many workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). If these workers are paid a standard wage, they could lose a percentage of their supplemental income. If they quit or lose their job, they would have to start over with the Social Security Administration to have their benefits reinstated, a process that typically takes 6 to 9 months according to Rep. Meier.

While earning a wage for one’s work is important, many advocates of 14(c) workshops cite that the benefits they provide are often less tangible. These workshops allow intellectually and developmentally disabled people to gain useful skills, learn how to be independent, and most importantly, feel a sense of purpose, belonging, and accomplishment. “They need to see how happy our clients are; how proud they are,” said Rep. Meier. “They’re trying to take this away from them.