A report about unionized workers at a state owned building in Ohio being replaced by non-unionized workers with intellectual disabilities caught my eye this week. While the report details the problematic nature of replacing unionized employees with non-unionized employees, for me this particular case speaks directly to the kinds of issues my own research around disability and employment seeks to address.
On the surface this case illustrates the way unionized work has been demonized in recent years and positioned as a luxury taxpayers can no longer afford. Yet, upon closer examination this is clearly not the case. Indeed as the report illustrates, unionized employees were struggling to support their families.
While a spokesperson for the Department of Administrative Services defended this move by stating that this move was also in accordance with state policy around hiring persons with disabilities, this line of reason is problematic for several reasons. While gaining employment for persons with disabilities, specifically persons with intellectual disabilities (who face significant employment barriers), is important, this issue is far more complex.
When we as a community advocate for paid employment, we are not just seeking a paycheck. Fair and equitable employment includes benefits, job protection, opportunities for advancement, and the same wages non-disabled workers receive. In this particular case, the state has eliminated unionized positions while at the same time bringing down the average hourly wage of $10 for non-disabled unionized workers, to $7.85 an hour for workers with intellectual disabilities. While persons with intellectual disabilities may have found employment, there should be no debate that there is a significant economic benefit for the state in reducing wages and benefits.
There is also no question that with this move the state is benefiting from the exploitation of workers with disabilities. By contracting this labour through Lott Industries (a service organization for persons with intellectual disabilities), the state has reduced their overall costs by $75,000 (not at all surprising since the working conditions have been drastically altered under this new arrangement as Lott industries' 'participants' are non-unionized). The trend of contracting out to disability organizations whose mandate is to find "employment opportunities" for persons with intellectual disabilities highlights problematic aspects within the disability service sector that see these organizations operating like for-profit companies rather than as advocates for social and economic equity. Although veiled in the rhetoric of 'opportunities for employment', participants do not receive the same wages or benefits of their non-disabled peers, and are often reduced to menial and repetitive tasks with little or no opportunity for advancement.
Fair and equitable wages and working conditions for persons with intellectual disabilities are in the best interest of employees with disabilities. Therefore any 'disability organization' that gains a competitive advantage by 'selling' the labour of persons with disabilities at a reduced rate is directly profiting from the marginalized economic status of workers with disabilities.
Despite being framed as an act of goodwill by the state towards the disability community, there are no 'winners' when wages are reduced and benefits are cut. As a community, we should be outraged when employment opportunities for persons with disabilities are advanced on the grounds that workers with disabilities are less deserving than their non-disabled peers.