Hillary Clinton responds to local attorney

Nicolas Lamorte, Editor In Chief

Nicki Vander Muelen is a public attorney of juvenile criminal defense and the disabled. Vander Muel, based in Madison, recently attended a campaign event for Hillary Clinton, and was lucky enough to directly ask the former Secretary of State about her stance on the sub minimum wage loophole, which allows employers to pay disabled people whatever they want.

Clinton responded by saying that she will not only fight for a $15 minimum wage, but close loopholes like the 78 year amendment to the federal min wage act.

Under section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), employers are allowed to pay employees with federal subsidies and insurance due to disability, anything they want. In Vande Muelen’s opinion, this relegates the disabled to the second class. According to the Society for Human Resources Management, the Fair Labor Standards act “…establishes minimum wage,overtime pay, recordkeeping, and youth employment standards affecting full-time and part-time workers in the private sector and in Federal, State, and local governments.”

Clinton’s comments make it the first time a political candidate has done so on the issue.

In 1938 the federal minimum wage law was amended, adding section 14(c) which was designed for war vets, to help them find work after coming home shell shocked and with amputations, and other ailments and disabilities, in order to provide them with jobs. At the time it said you could pay a war vet less than the minimum wage. Section 14c was not designed with those with disabilities from birth or injury outside the war. Those people were institutionalized. According to Vander Muelen, In 1986 the law was changed to say not “lower than minimum wage,” but that you could pay “any wage.”

“It’s a very narrow and obscure area of law,” she said. According to Vander Meulen, you have to have what’s called a “special certificate,” which is given after one is officially and medically declared disabled.

Vander Meulen takes on “overflow” cases. Usually these cases are juveniles, people with physical and mental disabilities, and are about to be committed to an institution. They’re handed over to her from the public defender’s office for a number of reasons, including her firsthand experiences as a disabled person, or because of time and resources. She also lobbies for the Developmental Disability Council in Washington D.C. Vander Muelen lives with asperger’s syndrome, attention deficit disorder and a mild form of cerebral palsy.

“The reason I got interested in law is very simple, I wasn’t supposed to get an education. My parents were told I belonged in an institution when I was 6. They shipped off everyone from that district who was ‘disabled.’ We objected to that and won after filing a formal complaint. I decided on a law career when I was 7,” she said.

“People didn’t know what to do or how to teach me, because I couldn’t write but I could read at a 12th grade level when I was 8. Once I had a teacher hold up my paper, which had no name on it and that I’d worked on for ages, in front of the class and ask, ‘Who’s is this with the worst handwriting I’ve ever seen?’ She made me rewrite it 100 times, which took me four days, at which point my parents pulled me from the class. I was punished for my behavior through ridicule and public humiliation. Unfortunately, this is still a common practice in classrooms throughout the country.”

Vander Muelen has been an advocate for herself all her life, and has advocated for rights for the disabled outside of the classroom.

“I graduated with a law degree from UW-Madison, one of the toughest law schools in the country,” she said. “I was told opening my own firm would be a waste of time by my Department of Vocation Rehabilitation officer and that the most I could ever hope for was answering phone calls at a goodwill.”

According to Vander Meulen, only 20 percent of disabled people in the country are employed. The companies that do employ the disabled receive tax breaks, but that money rarely gets passed on to the employees. Currently, 228,000 people per year make under $2.00 an hour.

“You either get paid by the piece, or unit, called Piece Rates, by your speed and how many units you can make in any given time. Or they compare your work with an able bodied worker and then you get half or whatever they decide your work is worth compared to the able bodied worker, which are called Time Studies. Most family members are told they’re lucky they even have a job, period, and the disabled are told the same,” she said.

Equally frustrating is the Able Act mandate that says that disabled individuals can save no more than $14,400 a year, and make only $1,000 a month. “If I make more than $1,000 a month for more than 8 months, the government will start to garnish my wages,” says Vander Muelen. It’s basically federally mandated dependency.

As Vander Muelen continues to represent young people and the disabled, she will continue lobbying for changes to federal laws which make it difficult to live a completely independent life. She sees herself advocating more and possibly running for office in the future, but right now, she loves what she’s doing. “I get paid to do what I got in trouble for growing up: interrupting people and arguing with them.”