Beyond Meaningful Work: The General Store
How one suburban, N.J,. shop is tackling inclusion and subminimum wage in disability employment
With its mix of charm and sweetness, Wendy Lacey’s Montclair, N.J. shop, The General Store, is the kind of place one would expect to happen upon while idling the afternoon away during a particularly satisfying vacation. It’s brightly lit with colorful, cheerful “this ‘n’ that” wares and plenty of sweet treats to boot.
Shoppers on the hunt for specific items, such as games, toys, or a snarky birthday card find themselves just as satisfied as the casual browser who stops in and ends up leaving with, well, a game, toy, or a snarky birthday card. And woven into the inventory are specially cultivated items from businesses that are owned and operated by entrepreneurs with disabilities, including artwork, dog treats, and gluten-free cookies. Customers are also likely to encounter assistance from both disabled and non-disabled staff, which Lacey seamlessly blended in the pre-COVID 19 landscape.
For the past three years, The General Store has been an anchor at Cornerstone Montclair, a building and outreach program that Lacey herself owns and operates with an eye not only on inclusive employment, but fair wages for everyone working at her shop. “We promote the idea that everyone should be welcomed and valuable members of society,” she says. “We wanted to create employment opportunities and opportunities for people to be active physically and socially and to feel welcome in the community.” Partners in the building include an adaptive, inclusive ninja warrior gym, and a speech and language therapy practice.
Inspired by her daughter’s journey with Down Syndrome, Lacey created Cornerstone Montclair as to help create opportunities for the disability community to find meaningful work that also pays fair wages. Her daughter, now 16, is eligible for programs until age 21; the deadline looms large. “We have had a positive experience with inclusive education in the public school, but looking forward, people worry about work.”
Looking ahead, Lacey understands the reality facing most disabled young adults is one where they wake up one day with nowhere to go. They risk a “fall off a cliff after they turn 21,” she says. “There’s not much continuum out there for inclusion.”
In pre-COVID times, Lacey’s General Store served as a training ground for disabled and non-disabled alike to learn the ropes of retail side-by-side, as peers and colleagues. While restrictions have been ushered in for safety purposes, she remains determined to provide inclusive experiences that pay well by staggering hours and following safety guidelines.
The year 2020 includes a very special set of milestones for our nation’s disabled. October marks the 75th observation of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) and the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) turns 30 this year. Yet, a loophole in wage legislation dating back to the late 1930s makes establishments like Lacey’s veritable unicorns for paying fair wages to their disabled employees.
To understand the history of subminimum wage, also called 14(c), within the disability community, it is necessary to consider the backdrop when the legislation was written. In 1937, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt called for the enactment of a federal minimum wage and in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act began. During this time period, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins petitioned for a lower wage for people who “by reason of illness or age or something else are not up to normal production.” The provision was initially intended to assist injured veterans who were returning to the workforce after serving in the war, and its goal was to assist veterans with their rehabilitation.
Under this legislation, the payment structure is pulled from a specified percentage of a non-disabled counterpart’s productivity and based on how productive the disabled worker is, or by a price per piece. Over time, however this has given rise to incidents of exploitation rather than rehabilitation. In a 2019 subminimum wages briefing to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, one testimony included the information that estimated hourly wages for disabled workers was $2.50 an hour. For context, the nation’s federal minimum wage sits at $7.25 per hour, but Washington, DC, pays $14 per hour and California and Washington state pay $13 per hour. Further testimony added that “for too many, it’s even less than that. The FLSA provision is a relic of an era when people with disabilities did not have federal protections and were viewed as unable to work at all.”
Mixed messages have also been part of the equation with regards to 14(c) and sheltered workshop employment. In 1980, Jerry Daugherty of the National Industries for the Severely Handicapped testified to the House Subcommittee on Labor Standards that simply having the opportunity to work was “more important than wages” to disabled workers.
But 40 years after that statement, and as an invested employer Lacey begs to differ. “For good or bad, we live in a culture where money means something more, including the natural feeling of self-worth earning money gives you,” she says.
STATES TAKING ACTION
In addition to programs and individuals who’ve taken up the cause of banishing subminimum wages for disabled employees, some states have decided to take action. Vermont led the charge and according to the testimony given to the USCCR in 2019, the state “saw individuals with disabilities pay $11.9 million in payroll taxes, and reduced Social Security and other social services by $5 million.” And currently, 21 states have measures that limit payment of subminimum wages for disabled workers.
While money is certainly a factor that cannot be ignored, Lacey says the other benefit to working in a truly inclusive setting is more related to soft skills, where her employees learn from each other and collaborate. She looks forward to resuming operations to the pre-pandemic days when she paired up her employees, and cites a friendship that blossomed out of one such pairing. “They started going out for coffee after work,” she says. “I’m not sure that they’re besties, but they know each other now and that’s a huge deal: perspectives changed.”