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This Build Back Better proposal would raise wages for workers with disabilities

Weighing in at 2,135 pages, the Build Back Better bill drafted by the House is a heavyweight.

Many of its historic proposals are well known and discussed: universal pre-K, an overhaul of child care, sweeping climate change and renewable energy programs, expanded health care subsidies, and lower costs for some prescription drugs.

WATCH: The Build Back Better bill wants to lower prescription drug costs. Does it go far enough?

But there are scores and scores more. We’d like to start with one we spotted while reading through the bill.

It’s just 14 pages, found in sections 22201 and 22202 of the bill — titled “Competitive Integrative Employment.” That is a classic government phrase that could apply to nearly any job in any industry. What’s it mean here? This is about a fact of life for tens of thousands of American workers with disabilities: They are legally paid below minimum wage under a piece of U.S. law created more than eight decades ago. NPR reported last year that some workers are paid as little as $3.34 an hour.

Why does the U.S. allow lower wages for workers living with a disability?

This practice goes back to 1938, when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, the start of modern labor law, which established the federal minimum wage. But there was concern by some in Congress that the minimum wage would freeze out people who are visually impaired or live with other disabilities from being hired at all. So lawmakers created an exemption to the minimum wage. Employers could receive a certificate, commonly called a “14(c)” in reference to the section number in the law, and pay workers with disabilities an amount below minimum wage.

How many workers with disabilities are still paid below minimum wage?

Estimates vary, but at least tens of thousands. According to the Department of Labor, more than 39,000 individuals currently earn less than minimum wage in the U.S. because their employers have been granted 14(c) certificates under the law. Some 1,200 businesses either have applied for or have received the certificate allowing for that exemption. Many of these are businesses or nonprofit organizations, which are specifically devoted toward providing employment and other services to people with disabilities.

Is this allowed in every state?

No. Ten states have outlawed this practice. But it still exists in 40 states.

Who supports the exemption, and who opposes it?

There is much to say on this topic. Here is a very brief start.

We spoke with Maria Town, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities. She listed a host of reasons to change this. For one, it is open discrimination. She also argues that the notion that people with disabilities are less productive or need prohibitively-expensive accommodations is outdated and false.

But other people in the disability rights community support allowing subminimum wage. Evelyn Turner, director of the Disabilities Board in Charleston County, South Carolina, told WCSC-TV earlier this year that she believes the pay is appropriate to the skill level. “We have a group of folks who aren’t able to work competitively,” she said, “and this is their work, and they enjoy coming to work.” And some families told NPR that they are concerned that higher wage requirements could mean fewer jobs for family members with disabilities.

How would Build Back Better tackle this?

In general, Democrats and some leading Republicans want to end this practice. To do that, the House Build Back Better bill would fund $324 million to help employers move away from this system permanently. States and companies could receive grants to lift wages immediately and move toward permanently paying employees with disabilities at minimum wage or higher.

Why doesn’t the bill simply outlaw this?

Good question!

It comes down to the close margins in Congress in general and in the Senate in particular. Democrats have 50 votes in the Senate, 51 with the vice president’s tie-breaker. That’s well short of the 60 needed to move this bill through the usual Senate process, in which Republicans have the ability to filibuster. Their only viable option is to use a different route, known as “budget reconciliation.” That requires just 51 Senate votes. But reconciliation comes with its own strings attached, most notably that the legislation must primarily deal with and have a significant effect on the federal budget.

Outlawing this practice would not have a significant effect on the federal budget and thus, it likely would not make it through reconciliation. Instead, Democrats have gotten creative — which happens a lot with reconciliation — and come up with this work-around, hoping to use grants and incentives to convince employers and more states to do it on their own.

WE WANT YOUR QUESTIONS! What do you want to know about the current draft of the Build Back Better plan? You can reach us at NewsHourPolitics@newshour.org.

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