For disability rights activists concerned with the subminimum wage, a critical moment happened during the March 22 confirmation hearing for R. Alexander Acosta, Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Labor. Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) questioned Acosta about the subminimum wage. According to Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers can pay employees with disabilities an hourly wage that is well below the national minimum wage. These work arrangements are commonly referred to as sheltered workshops.
While Hassan’s question was encouraging, Acosta’s response was decidedly less so. Acosta stated that he supports the right of individual states (such as New Hampshire, where Hassan served as governor from 2013 to 2016) to implement measures that eliminate the subminimum wage. However, Acosta indicated that he will not steps to eliminate the subminimum wage on a national scale.
Acosta defended the subminimum wage. He stated, “I think this is a very difficult issue because you don’t want to disrespect individuals in any way. The very phrase ‘subminimum wage’ is a disrespectful phrase. You want to provide incentives or systems to ensure that individuals who might not otherwise have a job have access to a job and are trained into a job.” This is a common argument used by advocates of sheltered workshops.
Hassan appropriately responded, “It isn’t the phrase ‘subminimum wage’ that’s disrespectful. It is disrespectful and frankly discriminatory to pay people who are qualified to do a job subminimum wage on the basis of the fact that they experience a disability.”
Julia Bascom, President and Executive Director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, agrees. Bascom stated through email, “it’s not the phrase ‘subminimum wage’ which is disrespectful, but the practice of paying disabled people significantly less for our work. Mr. Acosta also references several tired and disproven myths in his defense of subminimum wage […] Subminimum wage is a degrading and injustice practice, and people with disabilities deserve a Labor Secretary who understands that.”
Hassan is a freshman Senator, but in her role on the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions she has already made a mark representing the interests of people with disabilities. During the confirmation hearings for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Hassan questioned DeVos’ knowledge of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Her questions exposed DeVos’ ignorance on the legislation. Hassan, whose adult son has cerebral palsy, knows disability policy and is advocating for positions that are of critical importance to the disability community.
If Acosta is confirmed, his position represents a decided step backwards from that of former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez. During Perez’s tenure, he advocated for fair pay for people with disabilities and worked to eliminate sheltered workshops on the federal level.
Unfortunately, it seems likely that the Senate will confirm Acosta’s nomination. Acosta, current dean of the Florida International University College of Law, is a much more conventional pick for the position as compared to Trump’s original nominee, fast food CEO Andrew Puzder. Puzder’s nomination was withdrawn in February after concerns emerged about his business practices and personal life.
If Acosta does indeed ascend to the Secretary of Labor position, the disability community needs to be on high alert for policies that support sheltered workshops. The good news is this: With knowledgeable disability advocates like Hassan and Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) in the Senate, disabled Americans have access to legislators who take our concerns seriously.