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Virginia Ends the Subminimum Wage; Jeopardizes Disabled Workers

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There are few issues with more economic consensus than the negative impacts of the minimum wage.  Originally designed to mimic racially discriminatory laws in other countries, the minimum wage continues to be a means of picking certain classes and geographic locations over others.  For example, the minimum wage benefits the high-cost-of-living areas in the Northeast over the lower-cost-of-living areas in the South.  It also benefits the more educated over the less educated and most troubling, the healthy over the handicapped. 

The fact that the minimum wage hurts the disabled is clearly seen in the Federal Government’s 14c exception to the Fair Labor Standards Act which allows employers to pay a lower wage to certain classes of workers whose productivity may be impaired by mental or physical disabilities.    While most states align their own minimum wage laws to allow this exception for workers in their state, sadly the Commonwealth of Virginia voted to end this important exception for disabled workers in Virginia. 

Led by Democrat Del. Patrick Hope, who represents a wealthy district in the suburbs of Washington, DC, the General Assembly voted by large margins to end the 14c provision which would have put an estimated 348 disabled workers, who were fortunate to know about and apply for this exception, out of a job.  The government planners on the left fully understand this impact and are hoping to blunt this unemployment by offering grants to employers to help them pay minimum wage to workers currently holding 14c exceptions. 

Governor Youngkin, to his credit, improved this legislation by grandfathering in existing disabled workers through 2030, but the Governor agreed to end the issuance of 14c exceptions for any new disabled workers seeking employment and to codify the $14 million in grant funding.  The Left gets two things it loves: a reinforcement of the minimum wage and greater dependence on government handouts. 

Disability advocates on the left would have you believe that the holders of the 14c exceptions are essentially being used as slave labor to greedy employers.  The truth is that most of the employees under this program are employed through contracts made with publicly run rehabilitation and employment services that not only oversee the health and safety of the disabled workers but ensure that they are trained and able to do the jobs they are assigned. 

As I was told by a rehabilitation coordinator in the second largest program in Virginia, most of the contracts being fulfilled by subminimum wage are contracts where the employer is willing to take a small loss with the intention of helping disabled workers who deserve an opportunity to gain skills and socialize outside of their home.  Most of these workers do gain skills and a large percentage go on to jobs that pay competitively and do not require the oversight of a rehabilitation program. 

While I applaud Governor Youngkin and the few legislators (like Sen. Holtzman Vogel) willing to speak in defense of these disabled workers, the right policy is to end the minimum wage.  Knowing that is unlikely, Governor Youngkin should push to expand the 14c exceptions and use the $14 million to recruit more employers and employees into this program!  Disabled workers deserve an opportunity to work, and employers deserve an opportunity to continue helping disabled workers by providing them jobs that give them dignity, community, and purpose. 

Derrick A. Max will become President and CEO of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy on July 1.  He may be reached at

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