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Advocates want disabled included in minimum wage hike for government contract workers

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WASHINGTON - More than a dozen advocacy groups are urging President Barack Obama to include mentally disabled workers in his call to raise the federal minimum wage for employees of government contractors.

The groups, including the National Organization on Disability and the National Down Syndrome Congress, said Tuesday they are concerned that Obama's plan for an executive order raising wages to $10.10 an hour won't cover many disabled people who now earn less than the current federal minimum of $7.25 an hour.

Thousands of disabled workers are employed by government contractors under a federal program that allows companies to pay a subminimum wage to those with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

"We believe that all Americans should be afforded minimum wage protections, including those workers with disabilities," the groups said in a letter to Obama and Labor Secretary Thomas Perez.

A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Under a law that has been in place since 1938, employers can seek permission from the Labor Department to operate sheltered workshops where disabled employees are segregated from other workers and paid less than minimum wage — as little as pennies an hour. About 420,000 disabled are employed in sheltered workshops around the country, though advocacy groups estimate that less than 50,000 work for government contractors.

Wages for these workers are a fraction of the minimum wage, calculated based on comparing their productivity level to that of a nondisabled worker. Disability rights groups have tried for years to end the program, calling it a relic from a time when disabled people were treated with little respect or dignity. They say a White House order that at least raises wages of federal contract workers who are disabled would be a step in the right direction.

But in a conference call with advocacy groups last week, White House officials indicated the executive order was unlikely to include disabled workers earning less than the minimum wage, said Ari Ne'eman, president of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network.

"We're trying to get them to reverse their position on that," Ne'eman said. "They were of the position that they do not have the legal authority to do this. Our position is that they do."

Obama's executive order is expected cover about 10 per cent of the 2.2 million federal contract workers overall, since most of those employees already make more than $10.10. It won't take effect until 2015 at the earliest and won't affect existing federal contracts, only new ones.

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Follow Sam Hananel on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SamHananelAP

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