Amid an ongoing push to end a decades-old practice allowing workers with disabilities to be paid less than minimum wage, a new federal investigation finds that such employment has dropped by more than half.

Between 2010 and 2019, the number of people with disabilities nationwide earning what’s known as subminimum wage fell from 296,000 to 122,000, according to a report out this month from the Government Accountability Office.

At the same time, employer participation in the program declined from 3,117 to 1,567, the report found. And, that number continues to decrease, with fewer than 1,300 employers authorized as of August 2021.

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Under a law dating back to the 1930s, employers can obtain special 14(c) certificates from the U.S. Department of Labor authorizing them to hire people with disabilities at less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

But momentum in recent years has shifted toward competitive integrated employment and away from subminimum wage with changes to federal law and an increasing number of cities and states banning the practice.

Notably, Congress enacted strict limits on subminimum wage employment in 2014 with the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. Under that law, individuals with disabilities age 24 or younger cannot work for subminimum wage without first showing that they have received transition services, pursued employment through vocational rehabilitation and that they have been provided information and referrals to other options in their area. What’s more, those being paid less than minimum wage must receive career counseling and information about training opportunities once every six months during the first year and annually after that.

For the latest report, GAO investigators reviewed data on subminimum wage employment, surveyed 14(c) employers from across the country and interviewed other stakeholders.

They found that nearly all workers employed under 14(c) certificates had intellectual and developmental disabilities. Most were white and between the ages of 25 and 54 and the majority earned less than $3.50 per hour.

While the Labor Department is charged with ensuring that employers with 14(c) certificates accurately calculate workers’ wages, GAO found that the process for conducting this oversight is often delayed, in some cases by as long as two years.

“Emphasizing the importance of competitive employment has become a national public policy priority for disability employment,” GAO investigators concluded. “At the same time, tens of thousands of individuals with disabilities are employed in the 14(c) program and paid subminimum wages. (The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division) has a responsibility to oversee the program and employers’ compliance with applicable laws and regulations.”

GAO recommends that the Labor Department establish timeliness goals for processing 14(c) applications, among other steps.

“Paying workers less than the minimum wage is unacceptable. Everyone deserves to be paid a fair wage, and Americans with disabilities are no exception,” said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., one of the lawmakers who asked GAO to investigate. “The report shows that we still have much more to do to lift up people with disabilities by raising their wages and creating competitive jobs in workplaces that employ both workers with and without disabilities.”

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