Transitioning: Disabilities and the Minimum Wage

7 Jun

My yearly post comes courtesy of some interesting discussions with my varied Facebook friends about economic policies and specifically about the minimum wage.  Having two teenage sons has definitely helped shed some light on the state of things as far as jobs and the economy as well as my own background, going back to the days on the farm.  I can try to talk about the economics of the minimum wage to my friends, but there might be more power in simply sharing a more personal (and maybe simple) example.

Two years ago, I wrote a bit about efforts to get my oldest involved in beekeeping.  It’s still a good read, and reveals the plight of many parents and individuals with disabilities.  Namely as we approach next year with him as a senior, we are still grappling about how we can arrange things where he might be able to take care of himself or at least be much more independent.  And the fact that there is very little out there for individuals with disabilities.  This is an update on that post plus a little lesson in practical economics.

My oldest still has no problem mowing the lawn and still looks forward to doing and making a little money.  He and his younger brother both mow now, switching off between my lawn and my neighbor’s lawn.  I pay $15 for my lawn, provided they pay for the gas or $10 if I have to pay for it.  My neighbor pays them $20 for a slightly smaller lawn.  Right away, you can see where they might be more likely to want to mow HER lawn than mine.  More money for less work.  But it’s with my lawn mower and mostly my gas.  I told them if they saved and bought their own mower, I’d gladly pay $20 but they haven’t been too keen on that.  They haven’t quite grasped the concept of capital investments, yet.

When my youngest (more neurotypical) son mows, he can do either lawn in less than 90 minutes, so he is making about minimum wage or maybe a little better.  However, when my oldest mows the lawn he will typically take 4-5 hours!  And he uses a lot more gas.  If I was running a lawn mowing business, you could see what the problem would be if I had to pay minimum wage.  One of my employees would be making me a little money while the other one would be costing me!  It has little to do with the quality of work as much as simple productivity.

And don’t get me started on government required licensing.

My oldest is not as interested in keeping bees as I am.  He’s just not into the bees.  He hasn’t been stung as far as I know, so it’s not that.  However, he is happy to participate in other aspects of the business that don’t necessarily involve wearing a bee suit.  When it comes to extracting honey, he enthusiastically turns the crank on the extractor and watches the frames spin around.  And recently he was happy to nail together and paint some hive boxes that I had ordered.   The price difference between an unassembled box and one that is assembled and painted is about $5 per box, so I offered to split the difference with him @ $2 per box, which he was happy to do.  In fact he was happier with this than mowing the lawn.  And he did a fairly decent job, not using too many  extra nails.  I wasn’t too concerned about the quality of the paint job as the bees wouldn’t care as long as he didn’t get any on the inside.

My patio is over run with bee equipment! One of the hives can be seen in the background

This was a job I probably could have done myself in an hour or so, but it’s a bit tedious so I was happy to let him have at it.  It took him probably 6 hours over 2 days.   But he was able to do this job independently and I wasn’t in a huge hurry as the bees are still filling out their top boxes.  But if he would have been working for someone else who had to pay him minimum wage, the cost would have exceeded the cost of simply ordering them already painted and assembled.  And we’re talking a $7.25 minimum wage.  There’s serious national discussion about raising the minimum to $15 per hour which would drop him from almost any serious contention for competitive  job opportunities even if he acquired enough skill to double his productivity!

There actually is a small provision that allows people with disabilities to be employed below the minimum wage under the Fair Labor Standard Act (FLSA) of 1938   The preceding link is actually an interesting read as it also covers exemptions relating to youth emplyment and agricultural employment as well as casual babysitting.

The employment numbers for persons with disabilities are bleak, at best, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics:

In 2015, 17.5 percent of persons with a disability were employed, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. In contrast, the employment-population ratio for those without a disability was 65.0 percent.

Here’s and interactive chart that breaks it down a bit.


No serious discussion of employment for individuals with disabilities and this special provision from the minimum wage would be complete without discussing its poster-child, Goodwill Industries.  In 2013, this organization came under fire because it was reported that they were paying individuals as low as $.22 per hour while Goodwill International CEO Jim Gibbons made $729,000 in salary and deferred compensation.   To many people who were making below minimum wage, that news came as a slap in the face and circulated a petition in order to pressure Goodwill to pay its workers minimum wage.

Goodwill issued their response to this petition where they outline why this provision is important as well as giving recommendations for insuring better compliance with those provisions.  You can also read a shorter but perhaps more poignant response here.    Which delves deeper into the wheelhouse where I presently work– with individuals with multiple severe disabilities.  As I began this post saying, the opportunities for these families are few and far between.   One of the complaints from some of those who opined the loudest in favor of doing away with the minimum wage exemption was that they felt trapped within the Goodwill system because there was no other place to go.  But if Goodwill was eliminated– then what?

The solution would seem to be more competition and oddly enough the publicity surrounding how much the CEO’s and executives were making might actually help if the publicity was less toxic and more helpful.  If another company moved into the area, they might be able to offer more services or higher wages and a six figure salary might be enough incentive to bring a savvy entrepreneur into the market.   But not if they are going to be vilified for making good money for doing good work.

Goodwill is a voluntary organization in all respects.  This means individuals and families can choose whether or not this is the right choice for them, and if they find another and more lucrative option, they are certainly encouraged to take advantage of those opportunities.  But with over 80% of people with disabilities who have ZERO employment, we need to be looking at ways to expand those opportunities instead of regulating those very few opportunities out of existence.

Finally here’s a short primer on how the minimum wage does or does not hurt workers:




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