Opinion: Labor Day Suggestions to Increase Access to Work for People with Disabilities

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This Labor Day it is a time to recognize both the contributions of those who currently work and to reflect on the barriers to employment that many face, as well as the importance of proper working conditions, wages, and benefits. 

Alex Gray

On September 6, Americans will celebrate our annual commemoration of Labor Day with traditional parades and barbecues. Labor Day is a yearly acknowledgement of the American worker which has been observed nationally since 1894.

For people with disabilities, the struggle for employment is not new, but it has become more difficult due to the pandemic. In 2020, 17.9% of people with disabilities were employed, which is down from 19.3% in 2019. These figures are much lower than the rate of employment for people without disabilities which was 61.8% in 2020 and 66.3% in 2019. This wide disparity in employment rates speaks to the need for our country to invest in the workforce of individuals with disabilities.  Here are three ways we can start this work. 

First, federal relief programs should provide states with the resources they need for home and community-based services (HBCS), like occupational and physical therapy and quality nursing care. Medicaid offers a variety of HBCS services which make it easier for people with disabilities to remain in their community, and included in these funds are resources that support their employment goals. More than three quarters of agencies that provide employment services for people with disabilities witnessed substantial job losses during the pandemic. Here in Boston, we have many great disability employment services agencies such as WORK Inc. and JVS Boston. The invaluable services these agencies provide bring meaning to the lives of many disabled individuals, but they require sufficient funding to do their work. As we continue to deal with and eventually recover from this pandemic, our nation should invest in programs that expand employment opportunities for people with disabilities. 

Second, America should do away with a sub-minimum wage exemption that exists for people with disabilities. Section 14 (C) of the Fair Labor Standards Act authorizes certain employers to pay workers with disabilities wages that fall below the Federal minimum wage. Paying people with disabilities equally is the right thing to do, and can help lower the poverty rate among people with disabilities, which at 25.9% is more than double the rate of people without disabilities. The disability community brings many talents, skills, and perspectives to our work and our pay should reflect these strengths. 

Third, all levels of government should use state contracts to expand opportunities for people with disabilities. A good start would be to pass the legislation that is being pushed in Massachusetts by state Representatives David Biele and Dan Hunt and state Senator Nick Collins which would ensure that people with disabilities are awarded 10% of state contracts, provisions that already exist for some other marginalized populations. Massachusetts currently sets contracting target standards for women-owned, minority-owned, and veteran-owned businesses and adding disability to this existing policy would be a natural extension. How we spend public dollars is a reflection of our values and by ensuring that people with disabilities receive government contracts, we are ensuring that our governments are showing that they value the disability community. 

President Biden frequently cites a saying from his father that “a job is about a lot more than a paycheck.  It’s about your dignity. It’s about respect. It’s about your sense of yourself and your self-worth. It’s about your place in the community.” For people with disabilities, America can now choose dignity; we can now choose respect; we can choose to show the worth of the disability community; and we can once and for all tell everyone that they have a place and a stake in our community and our future. And we can start this work by following the steps outlined above to ensure that we will have even more to celebrate in Labor Days for years to come.

Alex Gray is an At-Large Candidate for Boston City Council. If elected, he will be the first ever blind City Councilor in Boston and only the second serving in the U.S.