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Advocacy: Fair Labor Standards Act

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      Fair Employment

      The Randolph-Sheppard Act amendments played an important role in establishing fair employment guidelines concerning blind workers. The passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) also impacted the employment landscape for blind Americans. At the heart of fair employment advocacy for the blind lies the desire for equal pay. 

      The federal Fair Labor Standards Act established a national minimum wage, instituted pay for overtime, and regulated the employment of minors.  The 1938 Act allowed sheltered shop management to pay their blind workers less than the federal minimum wage, which they did at $.25 per hour, and no benefits.  FLSA Section 14(c) of the Act exempted workshops managers from paying minimum wage as workers employed there were considered “substandard”, maintaining low productivity due to their disability. When first enacted, no wage floor was defined, leading to widespread exploitation of blind workers.

      Many workshops were considered “work activity centers” not employment settings and blind employees were denied the right to organize, collective bargaining, worker’s compensation, and unemployment insurance.  Ultimately, regulations were adopted that sheltered workshops be separated from Work Activity Centers, which were considered therapeutic and had no wage floor, and that wages in sheltered employment be set at not less than 50 percent of federal minimum wage.

      The debates over this proposal created long-lasting battle lines between representatives of industry, and advocates for the blind.  After 1966, many congressional studies, hearings, and proposals have been introduced to modify this section of the FLSA.  Over the years the number of workshops and, correspondingly, the number of individuals working in them have increased dramatically.  Fighting the wage exemption continued to be important to advocates for the blind, and many argued that blindness alone does not justify the exemption; that workshop management routinely exploited – both intentionally and unintentionally – sheltered workers, and the procedure for appealing reprimands or wage discounts placed an undue burden on the worker.

      There were several setbacks along the way, but the tireless efforts by advocates for the blind resulted in substantially increased wages for the blind working in these facilities and led to increased wages in similar facilities around the nation.  In addition, they established a course for future amendments to the Rehabilitation Act in 1998 that now prevent state vocational rehabilitation agencies from considering placements in sheltered shops as successful outcomes, thus providing a disincentive for these types of placements.  

      To learn more about the history of sheltered work in Iowa, please visit the Sheltered Workshops page.

      See also:

      Whittaker, William G., “Treatment of Workers with Disabilities under Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act,” Federal Publications. Congressional Research Services Report for Congress: Paper 209 (February 9, 2005)  (http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/key_workplace/209)