Should Sheltered Workshops Be Preserved? – Tribune-Democrat OpEdJune 11, 2016, By Bradley R. Burger, Goodwill's President & CEO, Johnstown Tribune-Democrat
Last week I had the opportunity to sit with our clients, families, and other providers to discuss both our rationale for closing our sheltered workshop program and our plan to transition our 17 clients to other quality providers. It became clear that many stakeholders in the room really had no idea about the larger issues occurring in the disability community regarding the future of sheltered employment in the United States. Along with promising a transition process that respects the dignity of our clients, I committed to those in the room and the larger community to share the current trend in public policy related to sheltered workshops — a complex and sensitive topic.
Sheltered workshops for people with disabilities have been around for centuries, but expanded greatly after World War II in the United States. Sheltered workshop programs serve almost exclusively people with disabilities with an emphasis on those with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Daily programming includes a focus on work that is compensated based on an individual’s production output. Governed by the U.S. Department of Labor under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA), Section 14(c), this compensation system does allow for paid work below the established minimum wage. The combination of these three characteristics: the environment, the work, and the compensation, has put sheltered workshops under close scrutiny of policy makers and disability advocate groups.
Organizations such as the National Federation for the Blind (NFB) have been forceful advocates for change. Rooted in a history when the only employment option for people with disabilities was a workshop, these advocates feel that the current policy unnecessarily segregates individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and places them at risk of such segregation. Many people who are currently served in a sheltered environment, and their families, contend that these programs are providing a vital community service.
Armed with the 1999 Supreme Court Olmstead decision, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) began aggressive enforcement in 2009 to force states away from sheltered employment. Actions have included voluntary phase-out initiatives such as those that are found in the state of New York or direct intervention by DOJ in states like Rhode Island. The assumption is that all people who are currently served in a sheltered workshop will be employable in community-based competitive employment opportunities. While disability employment participation has increased in some early adopter states, many times the hours worked per week are few and must be supplemented with nonwork activities.
Further federal pressure against sheltered employment came in 2014 with the bipartisan passage of the Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act (WIOA). This comprehensive legislation governs all aspects of the public workforce system including amendments to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Among these amendments, state agencies cannot refer young adults to sheltered employment providers without a full vetting of other community options. The effect is two-fold: drive young people to integrated employment and further curtail the pipeline of eligible clients to workshops.
The sharpest criticism from some disability advocates comes from the use of the subminimum wage certificate under Section 14(c) of the FLSA. According to the Government Accountability Office, 95% of all workers with disabilities who are being paid less than minimum wage under the 14(c) program were employed by sheltered workshops. Through an elaborate system governed by the U.S. Department of Labor, production output of workers who are “disabled for the work” are measured against nondisabled workers. The resulting productivity rate is multiplied by a “prevailing” wage — the average wage of nondisabled workers performing a similar job in a local area. Critics charge that this approach devalues people with disabilities and greatly benefits the workshop provider. Using the 14(c) program as a weapon to harm, some unethical employers and a few sheltered employment providers have exploited those most vulnerable among us; however, most workshops hold very high standards to protect the integrity of the system. In an environment of automation and offshoring, many workshops struggle to provide ample work for their clients and often must supplement income from other sources to fulfill their missions. Proponents see 14(c) as a viable and fair tool to provide paid work opportunities to people with mental, physical, or behavioral challenges who may struggle in a competitive environment.
It is clear that this issue cannot be told or understood in a sound bite. It is complex and deserves our attention and understanding as we must have a system that works for all people. As the African proverb states that the grass suffers when elephants fight, my fear is that this population will lose options, choice, dignity, and respect as the winds of change roar on. I have spent my entire career working with and advocating for people with disabilities for maximum integration in the community; however, well-intentioned, but unfunded, community integration mandates have made Cook County Jail in Chicago the largest mental health hospital in the United States. Further, the willingness of employers to hire people with severe disabilities and transportation access to job sites are just two of the larger challenges facing this trend. Workshop providers usually tread lightly into the public advocacy realm for fear of being seen as perpetuating a self-serving system. I encourage those who feel that workshops should be preserved as a viable service choice for some people with disabilities to contact your federal and state elected officials now. Let them know your thoughts.