Expert Update: Advancing Employment to End Subminimum Wages

photo of Tracy Rackensperger
Tracy Rackensperger, a faculty member of the University of Georgia (UGA) Institute on Human Development and Disability (IHDD)

In the life of a person with disabilities, few skills are as essential to success as the ability to advocate. One must learn to ask for basic needs and standards of care; in some cases, they must advocate for larger causes. Tracy Rackensperger, a faculty member of the University of Georgia (UGA) Institute on Human Development and Disability (IHDD), is an exemplary advocate for individuals with disabilities. 

Within IHDD, Rackensperger serves as the resource and outreach manager for the Advancing Employment program, a technical assistance center for best practices in employment support, particularly concerning employees with disabilities. 

Since 1965, IHDD has been a Georgia University Center for Excellence in Disability Research, Education, and Service (UCEDD). Advancing Employment, managed by IHDD, dedicates much of its time and resources to addressing issues facing the Georgia disability community in the workforce. 

For example, some Georgians with disabilities work in environments in which they make subminimum wages.

“For decades, it has been legal to pay people with disabilities less than minimum wage,” explained Rackensperger. “Through the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) 14(c) program, the Department of Labor (DOL) certifies employers to pay individuals with disabilities wages below the federal minimum, also known as subminimum wages.”

Initially, the provisions established by the FLSA 14(c) program were enacted to incentivize employers to hire veterans with disabilities. However, these certificates are only held by community rehabilitation programs (CRPs), which operate sheltered workshops. Most workers in sheltered workshops earn less than $3.50 an hour, but some make as low as 22 cents per hour. Because of this, Rackensperger is committed to advocating for a shift from sheltered workshops in favor of competitive integrated employment (CIE).

“Within sheltered workshops, people with disabilities get paid pennies for their work,” said Rackensperger. “CIE is important because it offers people with disabilities the opportunity to make a fair wage that can sustain them.”

Although there have been efforts to promote and sustain subminimum wage employment, decades of research, including multiple reports from the Government Accountability Office, have shown that sheltered workshops offer ineffective vocational training, regulations are poorly enforced, and people rarely transition from subminimum wage employment to a competitive job in the community.

“In the State of Georgia, there are currently eight organizations that hold 14(c) certificates. Collectively, these organizations pay a total of 245 individuals with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage,” Rackensperger said. “It is essential that we continue to encourage the move from sheltered workshops that engage in these practices to jobs that offer competitive pay and better working conditions.”

So far, the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) and Advancing Employment have helped to transfer two CRPs out of using 14(c) certificates and are working on transferring a third. This work has further been aided by a federal Subminimum Wage to Competitive Integrated Employment (SWTCIE) grant, which Governor Brian Kemp applied for. This grant aims to bolster the work of Rackensperger and Advancing Employment as they assist CRPs in creating supported employment programs.

“Georgia is not the only place where people are moving to CIE,” Rackensperger explained. “Virginia, Tennessee, and South Carolina have passed legislative bills to ban [CRPs] or at least prevent the provision of new 14(c) certificates for CRPs.”

One of the concerns from supporters of the existing sheltered workshop structure is that people will lose benefits or friends in the process of transitioning to CIE, which would prove to be challenging for workers with disabilities.

“People voice these concerns, but they must understand that employees do not lose their benefits when the transition has sufficient planning, and no one is forcing workers not to see their friends,” Rackensperger said. “There is also no negative impact on social services for people with disabilities.”

Rackensperger and Advancing Employment’s work has had a variety of success stories for workers with disabilities in Georgia. They offer valuable transitional opportunities to careers with better vocational training and support.

“We have a person who works at Home Depot and a person who works at the YMCA, for example,” Rackensperger said. “These people have moved to work that pays them a fair wage and offers opportunities to grow as both people and workers.”

With the efforts of Rackensperger and Advancing Employment, there is hope for the future of Georgia workers with disabilities, both in terms of receiving fair payment and growing within a position that understands and supports them as people.

For more information on Advancing Employment, visit  https://www.advancingemployment.com/.