Biden’s disability plan, released in late May, includes a promise to work with Congress to pass the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act. The act would provide grants for which states can apply to help employers phase out the subminimum wage and integrate workers with disabilities into their community over a period of six years.
Introduced in 2019 by Bob Casey, the Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, and co-sponsored by 59 Democrats and seven Republicans in both houses, the legislation is the product of a yearslong effort. Since the civil-rights movement in the 1960s, disability-rights activists have decried the subminimum wage as discriminatory, and federal lawmakers have made several unsuccessful attempts to abolish it. Their efforts have been thwarted time and again by lobbyists for large subminimum-wage employers, such as Goodwill, who argue that eliminating the subminimum wage would deprive people with disabilities of work opportunities. Neil Romano, the chair of the National Council on Disability, says these lobbyists often have the “single most important weapon” in tow: parents or guardians of someone in a workshop who fear for their loved one’s prospects in the mainstream workforce.
But Biden and an increasing number of lawmakers today are resolute about getting rid of the submimimum wage, arguing that it conflicts with existing policy meant to protect people with disabilities from discrimination, including the ADA. Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, for example, has been pushing federal legislation, including the bill Biden supports.
Until President Donald Trump’s 2016 run, disability rights were largely uncontentious and not associated with a particular party. The ADA, for example, was enacted by a Republican president, George H. W. Bush. However, after Trump mocked the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Serge F. Kovaleski, who has a physical disability, and after reports that Trump has been repeatedly sued for violations of the ADA, disability issues entered the mainstream political conversation. For the first time in history, they became a focus of a major-party presidential nominee’s campaign, as Hillary Clinton pledged to ban the subminimum wage..
Some states have also already ended or begun phasing out the subminimum wage and sheltered workshops. In 2002, Vermont became the first state to abolish the subminimum wage—and, data show, has been the most successful at integrating people with disabilities into the mainstream workforce. Within three years of sheltered workshops’ closure, 80 percent of former workshop workers found employment. Today, the state’s integrated employment rate for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is twice the national average: 38 percent, compared with a rate of 19 percent nationally.
At least six states have followed Vermont, including New Hampshire, Maryland, Alaska, Oregon, Nevada, and Maine. In 2019, Texas mandated that all state contractors increase their wages for workers with disabilities to the federal minimum wage by 2022. To date, 40 states have adopted “Employment First” legislation or state policy aimed at integrating workers with disabilities into the community.