About 13,000 disabled Pennsylvanians are earning an average of $2.40 an hour in a legal use of subminimum wages.
The majority work almost solely with other disabled people, in a world tucked away from the mainstream labor market.
They’re given menial tasks, like folding boxes, shredding paper or packing mail inserts.
Since 1986, there has been no limit to how little they can be paid. And even the federal government, which issues the certificates that allow employers to pay subminimum wages, doesn’t track the hourly earnings of the workers.
An average worker at the Venango Training and Development Center in Northwest Pennsylvania, for example, earns $1.72 an hour for shrink-wrapping mugs or assembling toys. In Montgomery County, workers are baking dog treats for an average of $3.16 an hour at the Center for Creative Works.
Boxing screws and preparing mail to be sent to prospective college students yields an average of $1.62 an hour at the Milestone Centers in Monroeville.
The federal program as a whole is under attack at state and national levels.
Does it provide opportunities for people who wouldn’t otherwise have a job? Or does it exploit those who could work for minimum wage if given the chance?
Prank successful, Kissel got right back to work at the Westmoreland County Blind Association, loading boxes of paper onto a dolly to prepare for shredding.
Kissel, 36, has Down syndrome. He lives in a group home with two roommates. He sees this work as a ticket to independence — his own apartment.
“I want to spend time alone,” he said. “Too many people are around.”
That goal may be nearly impossible considering his pay.
He said he earned $57 on a recent paycheck, which covered two weeks. He usually works 25 hours a week.
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Thousands of Disabled Workers in Pennsylvania Paid Far Below Minimum Wage