Texas quietly surpassed almost all other states recently to phase out subminimum wage for individuals with severe disabilities. This means certain employers can no longer obtain certificates from the Department of Labor and pay individuals with disabilities as low as pennies per hour. This is an excellent first step for our state, but it is just a first step. Now is the time for more employers to step up and fully include all individuals in the workforce.
Championed by Republican state Sen. Joan Huffman and Rep. John Raney, House Bill 885 and Senate Bill 753 were signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott. Texas is the sixth state to pass a comparable measure. Other states and the federal government are considering similar legislation.
When Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, it was intended to encourage employment of individuals with disabilities, but instead it has contributed to greater isolation and sustained a cycle of poverty. Most people were placed in sheltered workshops and never transitioned to typical employment environments. One reason that subminimum wage is ineffective is it does not encourage people to pursue jobs that use their individual strengths. The entire existence of sheltered work and subminimum wage is predicated on the idea disabled people cannot succeed in employment. Data show this is not true.
In the United States, more than 50 million individuals have some kind of disability. About 1 million live with a severe disability, and 2 million have a functional limitation. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 41 percent of individuals with a disability were a part of the workforce. The poverty rate for working-age people with disabilities is nearly 2½ times as high as that for people without disabilities. And recent research finds that half of working-age adults who experience at least one year of poverty have a disability, and nearly two-thirds of those experiencing longer-term poverty have a disability.
New government programs have started to create pathways for people with disabilities to enter or return to the workforce, such as the Ticket to Work program, which gives people on Social Security a trial work period where they can be employed for several months without losing benefits and deduct disability expenses from their countable income.
Yet it is ultimately up to employers to make the biggest impact. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has reported that hiring individuals who have disabilities is good for the bottom line. Many studies have shown that people with disabilities take fewer absent days and are more likely to stay on the job longer than non-disabled workers. Fortune magazine currently rates Texas as having the 18th best state employment rate for people with disabilities. Even so, Texas has a way to go. Texas’ employment rate for adults with disabilities is 38.6 percent, compared with 57.1 percent in Wyoming, which has the highest employment rate for people with disabilities.
Moving forward, Texas lawmakers should focus on communicating a state-level commitment to employment access for those with disabilities. This can be easily undertaken by the governor’s office and other elected officials publicly discussing the importance of employment access for individuals with disabilities and by promoting innovative employers in the media. Second, steps should be taken to reduce barriers to employment entrance for young adults with disabilities. Many young adults who are able to work but have a disability are instructed to apply for supplemental security income to ensure they can continue to receive medical and psychiatric care. By continuing to provide Medicaid to young adults till age 26 instead of stopping at age 18, there will be a reduced incentive to pursue supplemental security income instead of entering the workforce.
Great progress has been made, but if Texas really wants to get serious, we must make more changes.