The AbilityOne program aims to remove the minimum wage for government contract workers with disabilities


The Biden government is proposing reforms to a New Deal-era federal program that gives people with disabilities federal jobs, but in some cases allows those employees to receive less than the federal minimum wage.

The AbilityOne Commission, an independent federal agency, issued a rule proposal On Tuesday, government contractors and subcontractors would be banned from paying “marginal wages” to blind or physically or mentally disabled workers.

The proposed rule would require each nonprofit agency participating in the AbilityOne program to certify that it pays its employees at least the minimum wage for all contracts and subcontracting under the program.

“Employees with significant disabilities who received sub-minimum wages for their work will now receive the federal minimum wage, the state minimum wage or the prevailing wage, depending on the applicable law,” says the proposed regulation.

AbilityOne program providers sell $ 3.6 billion worth of goods and services to federal agencies each year and employ more than 45,000 workers with disabilities in all 50 states.

the Javits-Wagner-O’Day law, Passed by Congress in 1938, favors nonprofits that employ disabled workers to do more than 75% of the direct labor required for a federal contract.

A provision in the Law on fair labor standards, however, gives the Department of Labor the power to allow nonprofits in the program to pay workers with disabilities less than the state minimum wage.

The new minimum wage for non-profit organizations will apply after the final regulation comes into force. Charitable organizations would have to meet the requirement at the time of extending or renewing an existing contract.

The Commission will be accepting comments on the proposed regime until November 12th and is looking in particular for comments clarifying whether the new requirements should apply to non-profit organizations extending or renewing existing contracts, or whether the requirements should only apply to new contracts .

The commission also asked how long it would take for nonprofits to meet the new requirements or whether the new wage requirements would affect the ability of temporary workers with disabilities to receive federal benefits such as Social Security and Disability Insurance (SSDI) ) as well as Medicare and Medicaid.

The AbilityOne commission says their proposed rule is due in part to the Biden government’s focus on promoting diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in all federal programs.

President Joe Biden too signed an executive order in April Raise the minimum wage for state contractors and subcontractors to $ 15 an hour. Prior to the executive order, federal contractors were required to pay workers at least $ 10.10 an hour.

The Commission says the proposed rule would bring “material and immaterial benefits” to workers with disabilities.

Higher wages would give disabled workers more resources to find out about their circumstances and other aspects of their life. It would also bring the program more in line with modern thinking about federal disability programs.

“Paying employees with disabilities the same wages that are required by law to pay employees without disabilities for the same or similar work is a sign of respect and a commitment to justice. Work provides structure, purpose, and a sense of meaningful contribution to the family and community. This is why the AbilityOne program is so important for people with significant disabilities. At the same time, in our society, the wages paid for work signal the value of that work, ”the commission wrote. “Paying equal wages to workers with and without disabilities who are able to do the same or a similar job as workers without disabilities underscores that this work is valued equally and that people with disabilities are fully included in our society.”

The National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency, last year called on Congress to phase out the AbilityOne program entirely, based in part on the program that allows workers to pay below the minimum wage.

The committee recommended that Congress let the AbilityOne program expire over eight years and that the commission overseeing the program stop adding new products or services to its procurement list after three years.

Larysa Kautz, president and CEO of Melwood, a nonprofit that does business through the AbilityOne program and employs more than 1,000 people with disabilities, said the proposed arrangement would help modernize the AbilityOne program.

Melwood and other nonprofits, she added, have urged the AbilityOne program to abolish the minimum wage regime.

“Over the years the AbilityOne program has taken on the task of providing meaningful employment opportunities for people with disabilities and it is encouraging to see their progress over the years in modernizing the program,” said Kautz.

Since 2018, AbilityOne program participants have seen a steady downward trend in employees paid below the minimum wage, down nearly a third since 2018.

“For the 45,000 people with disabilities currently on AbilityOne contracts, this decision confirms what we already know – their work is valuable, their employment is competitive and they are respected,” says Kautz.

The AbilityOne Commission says the cost of implementing the new rule is “not significant and is outweighed by the benefits”.

Nonprofits participating in the AbilityOne program are currently represented by two central not-for-profit agencies (CNAs) – National Industries for the Blind and SourceAmerica – which distribute federal contracts to nonprofits and conduct surveillance visits.

The AbilityOne Commission does not collect data directly from CNAs and nonprofits, but SourceAmerica says that 38% of the 412 nonprofits it represents are authorized to pay minimum wages on one or more AbiltyOne contracts as of the first quarter of FY2021.

The AbilityOne Committee consists of 15 members who are appointed by the President. Most of its members represent federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, Army, Navy, Air Force, Agriculture, Education, Commerce, Veterans Affairs, Justice, the Department of Labor, and General Service Administration.

The commission carried out the proposed rule during National Disability Employment Awareness Month, which this year also coincides with the 20th anniversary of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

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