Former Sen.Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, called for the elimination of the subminimum wage for certain disabled workers Tuesday afternoon at the Democratic National Convention. Harkin’s remarks followed two speeches about coping with disabilities on Monday night by disability advocate Anastasia Somoza and recording artist Demi Lovato as Democrats chose to highlight the 26th anniversary of the Americans with Disability Act.
The ADA isn’t normally a hot topic of discussion during political campaigns, but that law, state disability discrimination laws and other related laws will surely be affected by the fall’s federal and state elections. The presidential race will garner the most media attention. The presidential race is important because agencies like the U.S. Department of Labor and commissions like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will affect how the ADA is interpreted and enforced. Federal judicial appointments also impact how the ADA and parallel state laws are interpreted.
But disability discrimination laws are also affected by congressional and state races. Here are at four points to keep in mind when thinking about disability discrimination laws during this campaign season:
1. Disability rights have traditionally been a bipartisan issue. Both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 were passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by Republican presidents. A reader could assume that because of toxic partisanship that little progress will be made on disability rights, but that you could also infer that disability rights are so important that they could transcend partisanship even in a toxic political environment. This more optimistic view is bolstered by a study done by the Census Bureau, showing one in five Americans has a disability, so there is strong potential support for laws that help that the disabled.
2. Disability discrimination laws are a budget issue. In his speech, Sen. Harkin pointed out that 70 percent of disabled Americans are not working.Part of the reason that Republicans support disability anti-discrimination laws is that they help people maintain employment. Furthermore, the public accommodation sections of the ADA allow for disabled people to access employment through accessing transportation. The expansion of the Social Security Disability Insurance program has been a controversial issue. This increase in SSDI applications has partially been driven by the decline of workers’ compensation protections (see below). However, the purpose of the ADA was undercut in the 1990s and 2000s by the federal judiciary, which necessitated the ADAAA of 2008. It would be reasonable to assume that this misinterpretation of the ADA also helped drive the increase of SSDI applications.
3. Disability discrimination laws impact workers’ compensation laws. The Labor Department has indicated that 80 percent of the costs of work injuries are born either by government programs, private insurance or by taxpayers. In part, this is the result of a bipartisan and sustained attack on workers’ compensation laws in many state legislatures. One benefit that is routinely stripped or attacked is vocational rehabilitation, which allows workers to be retrained if they are unable to do their jobs.
In many workers’ compensation cases, a worker’s injury will give protections to that person under the ADA. This often means state workers’ compensation courts can decide questions of whether an employer could accommodate an injury and/or what duty the employer would have to reassign or retrain an injured worker who would be covered under the ADA. Recently, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals held that employers have an affirmative duty to reassign disabled workers. It’s still an open question whether that law would obligate an employer to reassign an injured employee under a vocational rehabilitation program. But seeing that the ADA and workers’ compensation statutes have the same general beneficial purpose of allowing disabled people to maintain employment, such case law could be persuasive.
4. The ADA may affect state disability discrimination laws. States have their own laws prohibiting disability discrimination. States like Nebraska have laws that are more expansive than the ADA when it comes to pregnancy, but provide fewer protections to disabled workers in general. In Marshall v. Eyecare Specialties, the Nebraska Supreme Court held that since Nebraska did not amend its disability discrimination statute like the ADA was amended in 2008, that Nebraska courts should be applying pre-2008 decisions interpreting the ADA to Nebraska’s anti-discrimination laws. State courts generally look to how federal courts interpret discrimination laws when they interpret state fair-employment laws, so federal elections can affect how state laws are interpreted. But state legislatures can enact laws that offer more protections than federal laws. This is the case when it comes to extending fair employment protections to the LGBT community and is increasingly true as more states are starting to view pregnancy like a disability that needs to be accommodated.
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