Almost a century ago, in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act established the right to a minimum wage and overtime pay for working Americans. But the act carved out one segment of the population from the wage standard: individuals with disabilities.
That section of the law, known as 14(c), is still in place today. Over generations, it’s hardened into a United States workforce system that directs people with disabilities onto a distinct path, keeping them separate from their so-called “typical” peers.
Under the law, qualifying employers can pay workers “whose earning or productive capacity is impaired by age, physical or mental deficiency, or injury” less than the minimum wage for the work they perform. Earlier versions of the law established a wage floor of 75% and later 50% of federal minimum wage. Today, there is no wage floor for individuals with disabilities working for employers who hold what are known as “14(c) certificates.” Many earn less than $3.50 an hour.
And it’s common for certificate holders to provide those jobs on teams or in workplaces set apart from non-disabled colleagues — separate and not equal.
Part 1: Job opportunity or ‘civil rights issue’?
In the late 1980s, during his time representing Connecticut in the U.S. Senate, Lowell Weicker lent his voice to the movement seeking to end discrimination against individuals with disabilities, frequently calling out the “isolation and segregation” inherent in existing policies.
In remarks at the University of Maryland on May 12, 1987, Weicker said, “There was a time in our nation’s history when … we thought disabled individuals couldn’t measure up, that there were innate limits in their ability to enter the workforce and become independent, productive participants in the American way of life. But as a nation, we have progressed in our knowledge and in our attitudes.”
He continued: “With appropriate support in areas such as education, training, transportation and housing, disabled individuals can and want to enter the competitive workforce and take their rightful place in our communities.”
Weicker’s advocacy led to the passage of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which championed full inclusion for people with disabilities — promoting equity and accessibility in public spaces, housing, transportation, education, telecommunications, employment and government services.
But more than 30 years after the ADA’s passage, in much of the United States including Connecticut, individuals the law intended to protect remain isolated from the general labor force and earn less than minimum wage for their work.
“The country and its public institutions are still grappling with the reality that full inclusion is more than mere physical proximity in the community, it is also economic,” the National Council on Disability wrote in a recent report.
Julie Christensen, executive director of the Association of People Supporting Employment First, which advocates for inclusive employment for individuals with disabilities, said the FLSA played an important role in getting employers to consider hiring people with intellectual and developmental disabilities back in the early 20th century.
But the context is different now. The industries driving the U.S. economy have shifted away from “widget based” manufacturing, Christensen said, “and we have way more sophisticated opportunities for training and the use of technology.”
“There is no reason, in 2023, that a person even with most significant disability cannot participate in the labor market,” she said.
People with disabilities make up the largest minority in the United States, and they’re disproportionately underrepresented in the workforce. Less than 45% of Connecticut’s disabled population between the ages of 18 and 64 was employed in 2021 — just a notch better than the national rate of 41%, according to the most recent Annual Disability Statistics Compendium.
They are also the largest “protected class” under national and state anti-discrimination laws. In 2021, there were 427,144 people with disabilities living in Connecticut communities, or about 12% of the state’s population. Nationally, that figure was 42.6 million, 13% of the U.S. population.
Disability rights advocates say there’s an inherent contradiction when a minority group that’s protected from discrimination generally still lacks something as basic as wage protections.
“There is only one protected class that’s exempt from the federal minimum wage,” Christensen said. “We feel that’s a civil rights issue.”
‘The right to work’
Those who back the minimum wage exemption say it provides work opportunities that might not otherwise exist.
“Most people with [intellectual or developmental disability] are unemployed or underemployed despite an ability and a desire to work,” said Stephen E. Morris, executive director of The Arc of Farmington Valley, known as Favarh, which supports people with disabilities. “Should the 14(c) certificate get phased out, scores of workers supported by Favarh will lose their jobs and will be denied the opportunities to fulfill a key societal expectation — to have a job.” (The organization’s programs employ 75 people who work for less than minimum wage and 59 people who make minimum wage or more.)
Morris added: “We all complain about our jobs from time to time, but we would be outraged if the right to work was taken away from us.”
Favarh is one of the 18 employers in Connecticut that held 14(c) certificates as of last month. Like Favarh, all 18 are nonprofit social service providers, most of whom offer vocational assistance to people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
“We see it as something that allows some of our most challenged individuals an opportunity for paid work,” said Beth Fisher, executive director of Kuhn Employment Opportunities. Without it, many individuals would have to transition to full-time day services, Fisher and others said.
Under the law, employers can set a disabled employee’s wage based on the individual’s productive capacity for a specific job, relative to other individuals performing the same task. The labor department’s certificate application includes “wage calculators,” where employers enter the amount of time it takes a “standard setter” to complete a given task and the amount of time it takes a worker with a disability to complete the same task.
The U.S. Department of Labor says employers can’t pay someone subminimum wage “unless the disability actually impairs the worker's earning or productive capacity for the work being performed. The fact that a worker may have a disability is not in and of itself sufficient to warrant the payment of a subminimum wage.” And if an employee feels they’re being paid unfairly, they or a family member can petition the department’s wage and hour division for a review.
“Every individual who is on the subminimum wage certificate can earn minimum or full prevailing wage if their productivity is high enough,” said Mary Ellen Kunz, director of development and marketing with The Arc of Litchfield County. “This process is heavily regulated by DOL and always leans to benefit the individual working.”
Vocational programs like those offered by the Litchfield Arc, Favarh, Kuhn and other agencies hold 14(c) certificates for individuals in programs known as “group-supported employment,” a model intended to teach skills and prepare people for the broader job market.
At G.R.O.W.E.R.S. in New Haven, groups of four to six individuals of varying skill levels work together on horticulture tasks, with a job coach to instruct and assist in the work. “Most of those tasks could be performed by one or two people without a coach teaching them,” G.R.O.W.E.R.S. owner Scott Hickman explained in an email.
Wages vary from one individual to the next. Certificate holders periodically conduct "time studies," where they measure how long it takes employees to perform the various tasks that make up their job. Each person's wage is then set based on how much longer it takes him or her to perform the task compared to a set standard.
"I believe that any individual with physical, intellectual and/or developmental disabilities that is productive at a rate close to the average of a competitively employed individual should be paid the same as that competitively employed person," Hickman said. "We have actually had on occasion individuals that have 'tested' during their time studies at a competitive rate and therefore were paid at the minimum wage rate."
ARI of CT in Stamford supports 21 individuals working on a cleaning crew at subminimum wage rates. The organization contracts with seven local businesses and organizations who pay its crew to clean their offices.
“The individuals who work on our cleaning crew are learning skills while they are working. They are not yet ready to work at a competitive job,” said Susanne Kuligowski, president of ARI.
“Earning a paycheck is extremely important to them. They learn that hard work is necessary to earn money and by earning money you get to have the things you want,” Kuligowski said. “By earning a paycheck, they feel valued.”
Without the ability to pay subminimum wages, organizations say, their business clients wouldn't be able to afford to hire them.
“The special wage certificate allows us to be competitive when we’re bidding on work,” said Kuhn’s Fisher. “Let’s say you have two positions open and … I have a crew of four people. I'm gonna give you a job coach with that, but I need you to pay the wages of four people for two positions,” Fisher said. “That's not advantageous to the employer.”
Still, vocational rehabilitation agencies say they offer group-supported employment only as an alternative for individuals who don’t feel they’re ready for what’s known as “competitive integrated employment” — jobs that pay at or above minimum wage and take place in locations where the employee interacts with people who don’t have disabilities.
“Our first and foremost goal is to help an individual find a job that they enjoy and can be successful at,” said Kunz of Litchfield County’s Arc. “Subminimum wage is secondary and a last resort so as not to exclude anyone from gainful employment.”
Supporting each other
Lauren Traceski and Scott Masson got married last year. They live in an apartment in an adapted housing complex in Canton, across the street from Favarh, which provides them both with employment support, transportation and other services.
Masson works Monday through Friday on a Favarh cleaning crew with a job coach. “The job coaches are very important because they help bring us to our jobs and they’re there throughout the day,” Masson told state legislators at a hearing in May. (Masson also writes occasional news posts for Favarh’s website, in a section called “Scott’s Corner.”)
Traceski works in a more integrated setting at BeanZ & Co., a coffee shop in Avon that employs “an inclusive workforce” and pays the full minimum wage. Every Tuesday through Friday she runs the register, delivers food, makes drinks and tidies up. Traceski said, “I didn’t know if I was going to like it or what it would entail," when she first landed the job.
“Four or five years later, I’m loving it,” Traceski said.
Part 2: CT's shift away from subminimum wage work
One prominent customer that hires cleaning crews from community rehabilitation programs is the state of Connecticut.
The Department of Administrative Services said it currently has 64 active contracts with the CT Community Nonprofit Alliance, which manages what are known as “preferred purchasing” arrangements between the state and service providers employing people with disabilities. The majority of those contracts are for janitorial services.
Workers on those contracts “are employed and paid under the federal wage exemption by the nonprofit and not by the state,” Jesse Imse, a spokesman for DAS, said in an email.
But Imse added that DAS is “committed to transitioning out of these contracts.” As current agreements expire, he said, DAS is shifting to a newer model known as “qualified partnerships,” where vocational rehab organizations place individuals in jobs with private companies, which then contract with the state. The program aims to incentivize private companies to create more “competitive integrated” jobs for people with disabilities.
For some organizations, that transition won’t be easy.
“We don’t see ourselves as a placement organization,” said Rick Sebastian, chief executive of the Kennedy Collective, which provides day services and operates multiple businesses that employ people with and without disabilities. “We’re not funded to place people, we’re funded to employ people,” he said.
The collective’s businesses hold several contracts with federal government agencies, all of which require that crew members be paid a wage — set by the U.S. Labor Department — that is considered locally competitive, as well as health benefits. Sebastian said if Connecticut switches over completely to the qualified partnership model, his organization would lose all its state contract work.
It doesn’t help, Sebastian and others pointed out, that the state failed for many years to boost funding for nonprofit social service providers, which includes vocational rehabilitation programs. This year, legislators passed a budget that increased nonprofit funding by 2.5% annually — still far less than the 9% raise they were seeking.
The programs say employment contracts have helped support their organizations while other sources of funding have fallen short.
'Some systemic change'
Connecticut’s efforts to move away from contracting with 14(c) certificate holders is part of a broader trend.
More than a dozen states, including several in New England — Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine — have outlawed subminimum wages for people with disabilities entirely. A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators proposed legislation earlier this year, known as the Transformation to Competitive Integrated Employment Act, that seeks to eliminate subminimum wage work for people with disabilities.
From 2010 to 2019, the number of employers with 14(c) certificates nationally declined to 1,567 from 3,117 and the number of people working for those employers fell by more than half to roughly 122,000, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Federal agencies, including the Labor and Education Departments, have been working with states for several years to reduce subminimum wage and sheltered work by adopting new policies, expanding program capacity, improving coordination between government agencies and collecting better data, among other initiatives.
Last fall, 14 states including Connecticut received a combined $177 million in five-year federal grants to transition to the competitive integrated employment model. Connecticut was awarded the maximum grant amount, $13.9 million.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity,” said David Doukas, director of the state’s Bureau of Rehabilitation Services. His agency, which is in charge of deploying the funding, intends “to try to influence some systemic change and help individuals here in Connecticut with it,” he said.
Changing the system requires work on several fronts. Doukas has convened “work groups” to address four areas.
First, he said, is changing the language government agencies and nonprofit providers use in “messaging and outreach.” BRS wants families and individuals with disabilities to make informed choices about the employment opportunities they pursue and to be strongly encouraged to consider full-wage jobs in an integrated setting.
Second is bolstering services for individuals who choose to pursue those “competitive integrated” jobs — from coaching to “things like transportation, access to assistive technology, financial literacy, benefits counseling” and other logistical support, Doukas said. The agency is launching a pilot program that will offer these wraparound services to young people pursuing competitive integrated work, and Doukas said interested family members should call BRS for more information.
Third is training and providing technical assistance to current 14(c) certificate holders in the state. BRS wants organizations to “assess the individuals that they're working with, recognize when they have competitive skills … look at who might be more capable of competitive integrated employment and be able to leverage that capability and train them so that they can make that leap,” Doukas said.
Finally, the state will be working to build partnerships with businesses, establishing models for creating jobs that will work for individuals with disabilities while bringing value to employers.
That final component — the role of private businesses — is critical for a successful transition away from subminimum wage employment, advocates say. But it’s often “hindered by a lack of support and interest on the part of partner employers,” Carol Scully, advocacy director for the Arc of Connecticut, said.
“Yes, we're seeing more people in Hollywood movies, we're seeing more people with disabilities in marketing campaigns,” Sebastian said. “We’re still not seeing many people with disabilities in regular employment.”
COMPETITIVE INTEGRATED EMPLOYMENT
At the office with Kaywana Miller
The Norwalk offices of L’Amy America are bright and inviting, with a view out over the treetops and large-scale photographs of celebrities wearing the company’s high-fashion eyeglasses lining the hallways. Every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, 46-year-old Kaywana Miller settles in at her cubicle where she cleans dozens of pairs of glasses — spraying, wiping, drying and sealing them in narrow plastic bags.
“She takes such pride in her work,” Liz Giorgi, the company’s human resources manager, said.
Miller, who lives in Norwalk with her father, joined L’Amy about a year ago. She used to work cleaning bathrooms for Staples before the pandemic, but the new job is a better fit, her sister and legal guardian Natasha Collins said. “She works in a comfortable office space and gets to interact with coworkers,” Collins said. “The company is inclusive, and they have given her a birthday party with food and gifts and invite her on company outings.”
Miller said she likes that she doesn’t have to be on her feet all day like she used to. In the evenings, she said she likes to relax by watching her favorite show, “The Office.”
Photo: Erica E. Phillips, CT Mirror
Part 3: No longer a 'charity model'
On July 31, Goodwill of Southern New England let its 14(c) certificate expire. Individuals who'd been making subminimum wage under the organization’s group-supported employment program will now be earning at least minimum wage.
“Historically, our 14c certification had made it possible to provide job skills training and employment opportunities to hundreds of individuals with greatly limited work skills,” spokesman Marcus Notz wrote in an email. That “helped to build self-esteem, facilitate community integration and give individuals a feeling of self-worth and pride that they are contributing to employers’ needs and business operations,” Notz said.
But Goodwill SNE decided last year that it was time to change. They informed families approximately 16 months ahead of the transition date, allowing time to plan and prepare.
Notz said aside from higher wages, phasing out the 14(c) program will create new opportunities for the individuals Goodwill serves by not limiting them to the specific work associated with the certificate.
“Individuals may be interested in, and able to broaden the scope of, job tasks they perform at their employment sites, which would be mutually beneficial to the employer and the employees,” Notz wrote.
For Goodwill and other organizations, part of convincing people to move into competitive-wage jobs requires walking them through how a higher income might impact their benefits. (In Connecticut, individuals with disabilities can earn up to $75,000 annually without losing Medicaid benefits.)
This is an important component of the statewide, grant-funded effort under BRS, as well. And it’s not an easy conversation, Doukas said.
Obtaining Social Security benefits can take great effort, and individuals and families fear losing access to that support. Many have been advised by well-meaning friends or organizations to be careful of making too much money and losing their benefits, Doukas said. He encourages families to talk to the bureau’s benefits counselors, who he said are “like walking policy manuals on Social Security benefits.”
“The bottom line to it all is that people, if they are able to maintain employment, will experience a higher quality of life through their income than they ever would living at a poverty-line type of existence through the benefits they're receiving,” Doukas said.
Still, for some families and individuals, group-supported employment is preferable to the challenges “competitive integrated” work presents: finding the right job, figuring out transportation and being alone at a work site, without a job coach on hand.
Krista Ostaszewski, an administrator with the Connecticut Department of Developmental Services, said that’s why many agencies give people a choice. “The reality is that some individuals, families and stakeholders feel their loved ones need support or aren’t at a place that competitive employment is attainable,” she said. “They feel strongly that the subminimum wage has allowed their loved one to continue to be part of the employment world.”
The Arc’s Scully said many families “live in fear” of losing work opportunities. But she said that belief is “built on the lack of creative development of integrated competitive employment models.”
There are organizations in Connecticut that have been successfully placing people in competitive integrated employment for many years.
Star Inc. in Norwalk works to match people with intellectual and developmental disabilities with companies that carve out a job to fit the individual’s skills, in settings where they’re fully integrated with other employees.
COMPETITIVE INTEGRATED EMPLOYMENT
In the warehouse with Jamie Taylor
At insect repellant company Ranger Ready’s Norwalk warehouse, 25-year-old Jamie Taylor has earned a reputation. He can assemble and fill boxes for customers faster than any of his coworkers.
Taylor works with about half a dozen other employees in the warehouse, and when the work picks up, they play music and work quickly together to get orders filled. “In the summer he’s just super clutch in getting what we need done as fast as possible,” Lauren Gulliver, the company’s operations director, said.
“Whenever Jamie’s here, more work gets done,” Gulliver said. “His presence helps prevent any kind of overwhelming tension and definitely creates a much more playful and fun environment.”
Taylor also works part time at the Westport Book Shop, moving and shelving books and helping customers. Taylor said he enjoys all the work. He likes his coworkers and he likes to “make that money.” He said he’s hoping to move out of his parents’ home soon and into an apartment on his own.
Photo: Erica E. Phillips, CT Mirror
Executive director Katie Banzhaf says the job coaches at Star “shy away” from group-supported employment because people often tend to remain in that setting once they're comfortable, perpetuating the system.
“We'd rather train on the real job,” she said. “A lot of our folks don't generalize well … and the demands in the jobs are different.”
Banzhaf said Star works from the premise that “everybody’s employable.” The details of each job are negotiated up front, then the individual spends a short period learning their assigned tasks with a job coach present. They’re soon working independently on site, with Star providing transportation as needed and additional support if issues arise.
Star is currently supporting nearly 50 people in this type of competitive integrated employment (including Kaywana Miller, Jamie Taylor and Joey Agostino). On average, Star clientele remain in their jobs for nine years.
“We want the person to be valuable to the employer, we want them to be productive. We're not looking for charity,” Banzhaf said. “We like to go in really saying, ‘We can train this person to do the tasks that you need done,’ and we want to have their commitment from day one that they're paying the wages.”
That commitment is key, said Linda Rammler, a consultant and researcher with the University of Connecticut’s Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, because it can be challenging to get companies to think differently about hiring people with disabilities.
Rammler follows a process she calls “Three Cups of Coffee.”
Over the first cup of coffee, agency staff get a sense of whether an employer would consider working with one of their clients. During the second cup of coffee, usually at the company’s office, agency staff point out tasks around the facility that look like they’re not getting done — a stack of undelivered mail, a disorganized conference room or a line of people waiting at the copy machine — and they suggest it might help the company’s bottom line to have someone handling those things. Over the third cup of coffee, they bring up the name of an individual they know who has the skills to take on those responsibilities or could learn them.
“Employers need to be open to creative ways of employing people,” Rammler said. “If employers can realize it’s not that hard if you can customize the work, you will have success.”
In this model, job coaches are trained not to hover, not to do the job for the person and not to interrupt natural interactions between the individual and his or her coworkers. They’re on site for the first few days or weeks and provide additional backup if any problems arise after that.
COMPETITIVE INTEGRATED EMPLOYMENT
On the shop floor with Joey Agostino
Nielsen’s Florist and Garden Center in Darien is thick with foliage, tasteful planters and the smell of freshly-cut flowers. Every Tuesday and Thursday, 27-year-old Joey Agostino brings the nursery some extra sunshine during his shifts sweeping, unloading trucks and stocking supplies.
“He’s fun and social and a really good fit for us,” his supervisor Raya Ward said. “We have so many different departments and so many different things people can be doing. It works out really well.”
Agostino has been working at Nielsen’s for about two years and “considers them family at this point,” his mom, Laurie Agostino, said. “Work has just elevated Joey in so many ways,” she said. “He enjoys being around people, he thrives, he’s a really hard worker, and he’s eager to learn. … Every place Joey has worked has said, ‘I’d take five Joeys over one person.’”
He also started a side hustle. Joey “DJ Joe” Agostino has his own LLC and spins music for proms, parties and celebrity galas. His tagline: “Get down with DJ Joe. Rocking the extra chromosome.” Agostino said he likes to make people happy. “If I didn't have a job, my feelings would be hurting," he said.
Photo: Yehyun Kim, CT Mirror
Rammler cited several examples of problems employers were able to accommodate by working it out with a job coach: individualized training on new time management software; interacting with temporary staff during the busy holiday season; choosing appropriate attire for a job; allowing an employee to wear noise-canceling headphones in a loud workplace.
(The Job Accommodation Network provides a list of accommodations to help companies create an inclusive workplace for employees of various abilities. Rammler notes most of the accommodations are inexpensive.)
“We need to have a system where we can provide ongoing support when needed and where people feel comfortable asking for support,” she said.
That kind of support for companies is preferable, advocates said, to things like financial incentives for hiring people with disabilities.
In a wide-ranging bill passed during the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers expanded a tax break for businesses that hire individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities. A separate bill that sought to “prohibit employers from paying employees with intellectual disabilities less than the minimum wage” never got a public hearing.
Tax breaks send the wrong message, said Kathy Flaherty, executive director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project. “Why do we have to incentivize people to do something they really should already be doing?” she said.
Allan Bergman, head of employment consultancy High Impact, said the public mindset — and the systems in place to aid people with disabilities in finding meaningful work — need to shift from focusing on what a person can’t do to discovering what they can and love to do.
“It used to be, ‘We have to help the person with their disability overcome their disability,’ sort of a deficit model — fix them, make them better,” Bergman said. “Today, we're not saying we're denying it, but everybody has deficits.”
The Americans with Disabilities Act called for equal opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency for every person with a disability with no exceptions, Bergman said. Well-trained job coaches can get to know an individual’s strengths, interests, preferences and passions, and help him or her make an informed choice for the type of job to go after. And they can work with a business to carve out a job specifically for that individual that will make a difference for the company.
“Those ‘aha moments’ will start,” Bergman said. It no longer has to be a “charity model,” he said. “We don’t need to do that anymore.”
CT Mirror photojournalist Yehyun Kim contributed to this story.