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Cari DeSantis: Fair pay for workers with disabilities

The General Assembly is currently debating an increase to Maryland’s minimum wage. There remains, however, a flaw in the minimum wage’s attempt to address income equality: the 14(c) certificate, which allows certificate holders to pay special minimum wages — wages less than the federal minimum wage — to workers who have disabilities, for the work being performed.

For years, the 14(c) certificate, named for a section of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, has escaped scrutiny because it was not widely known. Fortunately, however, President Barack Obama has begun the process of addressing this inequality by issuing an executive order that requires all workers on federal contracts and subcontracts be paid an increased minimum wage of $10.10 per hour regardless of whether they possess a 14(c) certificate. He should be applauded for his efforts. We encourage the General Assembly to make the same considerations as this debate continues.

While some will argue that eliminating the 14(c) certificate will hamper the employment prospects of people with differing abilities, the Melwood experience proves otherwise.

Part of the community

Melwood, based in Upper Marlboro, is a community rehabilitation program that works to create career opportunities for people with differing abilities. In the Baltimore area, Melwood employs 38 people with disabilities at the U.S. Coast Guard’s Curtis Bay facility and 69 at Fort Meade.

To accomplish much of its mission, Melwood operates as a contractor providing facility management, recycling, grounds keeping and custodial services to organizations including the federal government, state and local government and the private sector.

In total, Melwood employs more than 700 people with differing abilities, providing them with both jobs and vocational support. These individuals may have physical disabilities, developmental disabilities, intellectual disabilities, cognitive disabilities or emotional disabilities.

Melwood’s employees work hard. They take pride in their work, and, quite frankly they do a good job. They deserve, at the very least, to earn the minimum wage. That is why, when I became the organization’s CEO almost a year ago, I ended the practice of paying workers with disabilities less than the minimum wage despite the 14(c) certificate program.

Today, none of our more than 700 workers with disabilities earns less than the minimum wage. In fact, our employees with disabilities make $12.43 per hour on average, and 80 percent of them make more than $10.10 per hour, the proposed new minimum wage.

Business competitiveness

Paying these employees the minimum wage has not hampered Melwood’s business competitiveness or its ability to create job opportunities for people with differing abilities. To the contrary, Melwood operates at more than 40 contract sites in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia and continues to develop new business opportunities to further its mission.

What guaranteeing at least a minimum wage has done is demonstrate our commitment to a world where people with disabilities are fully included and treated equally in the American workforce. It has allowed our employees to take charge of their lives.

Through its history, the United States has made great strides to bring about an end to inequalities. The practice of using 14(c) certificates to excuse employers from paying minimum wage to people with differing abilities perpetuates the idea that the work that people with disabilities perform is not as valuable as the work of typically abled people. It is wrong. I applaud the president for working to ensure that people with differing abilities receive at least the minimum wage. It’s time for lawmakers in Annapolis to do the same.

Cari DeSantis is CEO of Melwood, a community rehabilitation program that works to create career opportunities for people with differing abilities. She is the former cabinet secretary for the Delaware Department of Services for Children, Youth and Families.

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