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Sheltered Workshops No Better Than Institutions, Report Finds


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A scathing advocacy group report released Tuesday is taking issue with sheltered workshops and the advocates, employers, lawmakers and others who encourage subminimum wage jobs for individuals with disabilities.

The report from the National Disability Rights Network paints a glum picture of the jobs held by many Americans with disabilities that pay less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. In it, the authors charge that the segregated environments people with disabilities often work in are akin to institutions by “warehousing” people, limiting their opportunities and putting them in danger of abuse and neglect, all while providing financial gain for employers, some of whom earn six-figure salaries.

“For decades we have worked to ensure federal laws guarantee the right of people with disabilities to live and work in their chosen communities,” said Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network, an umbrella group for the protection and advocacy organizations in each state, which produced the report. “Yet, our investigation found that many people with disabilities are still being segregated and financially exploited.”

Under current law, the Department of Labor authorizes select employers to pay less than the minimum wage to workers with disabilities if the employee is determined to be less productive as a result of their disability. In such cases, individuals are paid a percentage of the hourly wage a typical employee would earn for performing the job.

However, government oversight of employers to ensure that workers are paid appropriately is limited, the report found, leaving the door open for abuse given that many workers are not able to speak up for themselves.

What’s more, while sheltered workshops are typically billed as providing job training, the report authors argue there’s little opportunity for people to transfer into competitive employment since the skills they’re taught frequently have little application elsewhere. And the low pay workers receive — often just 50 percent of the minimum wage — keeps people in a cycle of poverty.

“Sheltered workshops are often celebrated for providing an altruistic service to their communities,” the report says. “In reality they provide workers with disabilities with dead-end jobs, meager wages and the glimpse of a future containing little else.”

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Comments (23 Responses)

  1. vmgillen says:

    This complicated on many, many different levels – but what jumps into my mind is the thought that perhaps the current political climate will lead to calls for reduced wages to … teenagers (no, make that up to the age of 24), women with pms/menopausal symptoms, consistently hung-over alchoholics, and…) but, wait, wouldn’t that violate Title II and discriminate based on disability?

    Here’s a thought: unionize the workers in these job-sites! Several labor groups have been very proactive on disability issues…

  2. waykul says:

    Don’t be fooled by this overgeneralization. While it’s likely that there are some organizations that have taken advantage of the subminimum wage provisions of DOL, there are many more organizations who would not even consider assisting an individual find work for less than minimum wage. The focus is on helping them find jobs where wages are comparable to others without disabilities. Many organizations, and I’ve visited hundreds, who offer segregated work sites do so as the only option available when there are no resources for support staff at an employer’s site, funding for assistive technology, affordable and accessible transportation to the job, conflicting funding regulations…it goes on and on. Where are the national advocates then? No workshops are not institutions. They are symptoms of advocacy groups, providers, educational professionals and policy makers who simply cannot get their act together. Until that time, most segregated programs continue to offer opporunities to learn and earn, access to community jobs if supports can be found and activities to reduce social isolation. Even if these resources become available, let people choose where they work and what they want to be paid within what the law requires. With enough opportunities and information I trust that persons with developmental disabilities will make the choices that are right for them.

  3. casem says:

    No! see what this is someone giving employment to people that believe they can be both controlled, and not know any better. nor do they realize that EOE could exist. what gets to me more about this, is in the workforce my experience is in warehouse work, but I’ve worked on and with an International Board of Directors to help the education more for just about 2 years now, and I am regarded high as a self-advocate, board member, counselor, and and face of things. I have something called Mosaic Down Syndrome. People come to me for help.

  4. jimmylittleman says:

    I agree with waykul that this is an overgeneralization – not all sheltered programs exploit individuals with disabilities – I work in a supported employment agency that still has a small group of people with significant barriers in a workshop environment. We have neither the resources, nor expertise available to find some of these indivdiuals competitive wage paying jobs in the community (at this time anyway). In our state, funding sources would rather have these people volunteering in the community 4-8 hours a month than working at sub-minimum wage 80-100 hours a month. People with disabilites and families do not always see this as their best choice. I know the experts say everyone can be employed in the community but that is another problem in our system, we have way too many “experts” and consultants who make their living (usually well paid) telling other people what they are doing wrong.

  5. SusanFordKeller says:

    I have a concern that these workers may fall through the cracks of OSHA, also. Locally, there was a computer recycler who employed people with disabilities. The public relations photos showed a man with a disability only wearing gloves to dissassemble an old desktop computer, which are known to contain heavy metals.

  6. OswegoIndustriesInc says:

    I work with a organization that offers supported employment and training for people with disabilities. We operate in a county with one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. It’s unrealistic to think that every person we work with can be placed in a full-time community job, making minimum wage or better, with the flexibility many of them need. We place as many people as we can in the community — and for the rest, we are operating in-house businesses where they learn viable job skills (such as industrial sewing) in an integrated environment. We are very strictly regulated in our state (New York) so every possible suspicion of abuse or neglect is investigated thoroughly. Nobody’s getting rich, nobody’s being financially exploited; and if the job situation we provide isn’t ideal (anyone got unlimited funding?) it’s still far better than having most of our friends sitting home every day watching tv.

  7. jlmac says:

    There is no doubt that this is a problem…and it isn’t a generalization.
    I have friends who used to work in these settings who refuse to go back because their time was wasted and they made no money. That was their characterization not their own.

    Similar comparisons to institutions could be leveled againse adult residential facilities where individuals are living in community based isolation. Just try to develop a friendship with a person who is living in such a setting and you will see that the residents are not permitted to have those relationships and you are looked upon as obviously up to no good as “Why would you want to have a friendship with these people?” That is the position of the EXPERTS supposedly running those facilities. Isolation, exclusion, limited opportunities are built into the DNA of human service organizations and too often those who work in them. If it were not the case, people would be living much more integrated fulfilling lives.

  8. Johannes says:

    We have to keep watching that employment is meaningful and that people with disabilities are not taken advantage. However in the same Disabilities Scoop is another article: Disability Related Employment Discrimination At Record Levels. So to some extend it appears to be a societal problem. At this time many people with college degrees cannot find jobs. Under economic pressures many workshops have unfortunately terminated training programs. States do not have enough money to investigate because taxpayers do not like it. It takes training and jobs are changing fast. I don’t think all Sheltered Workshops are bad. However a headline with nuances is not a good headline.

  9. says:

    I, too think the group’s conclusions are over-generalized. I worked for 16 years as a staff person in a sheltered workshop’s community employment program. Ask what do the workshop employees desire when given a choice? Please take into account individuals, individuals with disabilities, area demographics at workshop locations, local economy, and on and on.

    Many states have transformed “sheltered employment” to minimum wage and above. Administrators at my workshop headed in that direction in a very difficult financial climate. What is worse; people that are happy in a “day program” or languishing at home if the workshop closed?

    Speaking of demographics, not all communities and employers embrace hiring people with disabilities. If they did, there would be no need for sheltered employment.

  10. GIGI22 says:

    Sherltered Workshops no longer exist in that fashion. They exist as Activity Centers that provide opportunities, socializion, empowerment, self-determination, avocacy as well as assistance with enhacing quality of life. Activity centers are based upon advocacy and were largely developed through parents who have disabled children, supporters in the community as well as legislative acts. Some of the commenters have their worries and concerns, however, they are words without action. One should learn before one speaks of something one knows nothing about.

  11. JR says:

    FYI – ACCSES (formerly the American Congress of Community Supports and Employment Services) has posted an analysis and detailed rebuttal of the NDRN center-based employment report on its Website.

    ACCSES objects to the numerous assertions made in the report without documentation or sourcing and the pejorative language used throughout the report. In its cover letter, the Board Chair and legal counsel conclude: “We do not understand how condemning colleagues in the disability community furthers the best interests of people with the most significant disabilities.”

  12. liveball says:

    Sheltered workshops financially exploit persons with disabilities! Sub-minimum wages encourage cycle of poverty! Vulnerable workers warehoused, abused and neglected! Service providers get rich while limiting opportunities! All enticing, attention getting headlines, but are they TRUE?

    The public MUST view these gross generalizations with much SKEPTICISM and a heavy dose of REALITY.

    I am proud to say I have sought and found a way to serve an extremely vulnerable population at the Maryhaven Center of Hope’s Industrial Work Center located on Long Island, New York.

    In the litigious society we live in today, is it realistic to believe parents and guardians of persons with disabilities would stand for EXPLOITIVE treatment, as the norm? A survey of our parents and individuals indicate they are 97% happy with the work center and CHOOSE to work here. If 1970’s Willowbrook conditions existed as the general rule, where is the public outcry? The Willowbrook Commission regularly makes UNANNOUNCED inspections of our facility, to insure such atrocities DON”T happen again. What about the oversight provided by funding organizations, e.g. OMH, OMRDD, and the state, county and federal regulatory agencies, not to mention the Department of Labor? For sure, they are under-staffed, but they DO inspect our work center monthly. Certainly, they are not blind to universal abuses? How about CARF certified agencies? Nationally hundreds of work centers and agencies VOLUNTARILY open their facilities to the scrutiny of these INDEPENDENT expert auditors to receive its “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”

    What is the employment REALITY for persons with disabilities? What is the situation faced by work center professionals, in the recession filled economic trenches of 2011? (Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics & Disability Funder’s Network)

    • An Unemployment rate 60% higher, than those without a disability
    • 79% Experience Discrimination in the work place
    • Minimum wage workers not provided health insurance
    • Competing 16 to 1 with persons without disabilities for the same jobs
    • 80% dependence on an inadequate public transportation system
    • Independent, self sustaining living not possible with minimum wages
    • A business community which out sources jobs to third world countries

    If these are the realities, why aren’t SHELTERD WORKSHOPS a POSITVE OUTCOME?

    As Sheltered Work Center service providers, we care for our nation’s most vulnerable population. We provide them with transportation to a nurturing environment, with medical and social supports, and the guarantee of a pay check. The size of the pay check has no correlation to the benefits provided. The value to the individual exists with the rise in the BAROMETERS OF SELF ESTEEM. The pride and confidence felt in completing a job and earning a check. These are illustrations of significant individual growth and should be viewed, as such.

    Given the economic and social realities of 2011, persons with the most significant disabilities are WELL SERVED by SHELTERED WORK SHOPS. If this model with its supports and benefits is ELIMINATED, then WHO AND HOW will these MOST VULNERABLE among us be served?

  13. msmona6849 says:

    I have worked in this field for 15 years providing supports to adults with severe to profound mental retardation- people that exhibit a full range of developmental and behavioral challenges.Some examples of behavioral challenges include throwing feces, spitting, slapping, screaming nonstop, and explosive aggressive outbursts. People that can be pretty scary especially to the untrained person. I would like to know from any of the experts writing this report and the hundreds more just like it- what about the large segment of this target population that because of their cognitive, behavioral, and physical limitations their “community” does not see their abilities just DISABILITY? Realistically can all of these people that lack natural supports be expected to start their own business and become self employed? I would like to know how the experts suggest we provide meaningful options to the most severely impacted?

  14. Felicia says:

    I do believe that some programs are like sweat shops whogive mediocre pay to people that they consider to be substandard. But all situations differ. Some of the employment opportunities or training that are given, coincide with the disability of the individual. There are different levels that such people are on, based on their IQ or their physical needs. I work in this field and have trained a lot of people with dd and I advocate for them everyday. I understand that the level of a person disablities can factor in the decision of wether they work outside in the community or in a sheltered enviroment. We train them to be positive productive citizens in which they develop a sense of self. No amount of pay can match that.

  15. Arman Khodaei says:

    I have autism myself, and I have actually been asked by some of these workshops to offer presentations for staff. The ones that did go to, I will say that the staff very much wanted to help out and relate to those with disabilities as much as possible. Some even had family members with disabilities.

    Also, some people with disabilities just can’t do the functions that other jobs provide. Being employed at a workshop gives us an opportunity to socialize and meet other people like us, work to do, a sense of accomplishment for completing work, and also a paycheck. Last time I checked, being in a institution did not include getting a paycheck.

    Anyway, I can’t speak for all of them, but it is my belief that the staff there want to help out as best as possible.

  16. janner says:

    Here we go again with the “one size fits all” solutions. I so agree with msmona6849, and liveball………sheltered workshops serve a very important function to our most cognitively and behaviorially impaired family members. To say that “everyone” should be able to work out in the community for no less than minimum wage, is a pie-in-the-sky idea……..sounds good to all of the “experts”, but just not practical in real life. Some people are just not able to stand the hub-bub, the noise or the close proximity of others in a workplace. Case in point….our son – age 31 now – was very happy in his sheltered workshop, doing piecework at his own station, with 2 staff assisting. He got out of the house 4 days a week for 3 hours each morning, got to verbally interact with others at the workshop, and had a task to do while earning a check. The money was minimal, and Friday was a fun day when he got paid…..but the money was not the big piece here. He was performing a useful task…… AND the socialization he got from those mornings at the workshop and the friends he made, were what made it such a big part of his life.
    The funding was pulled from his program in 2009, and all attempts to find a job in the community that would be suitable have failed. The state will not fund the supervision he requires to be out in the community, so he is unable to work at all now.
    It is a shame that something so positive in his life – and the lives of others who worked there with him – was discontinued because of the generalized misconception that ALL people with disablilities “should ” be able to work out in the community.
    The reality is that the people that cannot, fall through the cracks.

  17. UnionMusician says:

    I am a friend of a lady with autism and she is pretty high functioning. SHe is also visually impaired. SHe works in one of these dreadful places five days a week all day and says the most she ever made was @2 an hour and gets paid by rate. This has to stop now! Just because she is disabled doesn’t mean she deserves to be treated like a slave. To the poster that said they should unionize, you are right on! This abuse has to end, they deserve so much better. Would you want to put stuff in plastic bags all day or fold pizza boxes for eight hours and make maybe $10 for the whole day? I don’t think so. I am disabled as well, I am blind and would never want to work in one of these places.

  18. Cari Watrous says:

    Interesting that the defenders of the system are largely people who have worked in it or are family members and self identified people with disabilities seem to be largely against the system

  19. Robert MacLemaqle says:

    Can you guarantee that all workshops will find WILLING employers to hire all the workshop Workers?
    What about the disabled with emotional(autism) etc who can not function in a public work atmosphere? Did anyone think this through?

  20. N'k V'nsable says:

    As a Former Recipient of a Sheltered Workshop in Minnesota called Industries Incorporated I have to say this: Sure they are Failing, but the Real Question is WHY? I’ve asked this SO Many Times before I was Terminated, and the ONLY Conclusion I could Piece together IS that the Policies, the Rule & Regulations, THE Laws of Not just Sheltered Workshops but also Group Homes & the Special Education System is Not Tailored to Each Individuals Differences. Creatively Speaking, People who have Innate Powers & Abilities have made Impacting Differences in the World such as Abe Lincoln (Depression), Albert Einstein (Autism), & Unfortunately Adolf Hitler (Narcissism & Borderline Personality). Not Everyone, Especially Undiagnosed Individuals, can Handle or Understand those with these Differences. Much like “It Takes a Thief to Catch a Thief”, the Only Example I can Think of is Born with Superpowers and, as Most Would Agree, Has Actually Existed: “Have Jesus Teach Jesus”. And so People who have Matured through their Autism Experiences should Teach Others with Autism as well as Any other Born in Experiences. Second would be Additional Funding for the Programs who use these Methods & Techniques in Order to be Fair & Successful.

  21. Shas says:

    This is not the case in most cases. Yes most people who work in sheltered workshops do make less than minimum wage per hour but actually make more than minimum wage for the work they do. Most sheltered work shops set up a base hourly pay for a job uselessly well above the minimum wage then those jobs are time studied based on department of labored standards uselessly multiple people without psychical or mental disability perform the jobs to see how much an average worker would be able to do.. If the disabled person works at a rate of only 50% then they get paid that amount. this may seem unfair to some their was even a comment about lowering the rate of pay for alcoholics and women with PMS exc.. but don’t we already all the way down to 0 If I was to go into my job everyday and only complete a fraction of the work my coworkers do I would be out of a job. Its a nice idea to say everyone deserves a living wage but the truth is most disabled workers are not living on their wages they are provided depending on their states a wide variety of assistance the money they do earn is to go out to eat see a movie or other things that lets them be part of a community. For meany without sheltered workshops they would have no sources of employment unemployment rates are high and the job market is quite competitive without sheltered workshops meany of these people who enjoy working feeling productive will be the losers. I know people think they are trying to help but have they thought things threw I dont think so.

  22. squidknee says:

    Sheltered workshop employees are paid based upon their productivity. If a sheltered workshop employee is able to match the production rate of a minimum wage worker, then he or she is paid minimum wage. If a sheltered employee does 1/2 the work that a minimum wage worker does, he or she is paid 1/2 of minimum wage. How is that exploitation? People are being paid for the work that they do.

  23. Phil Orofino says:

    Overgeneralization and a real lack of first hand knowledge is the huge culprit here. I agree with liveball and waykul. The current operations of work centers do not have inadequate oversight but rather are more under the microscope now than ever. Sure there are places around the country that are not up to par but they should not be lumped in and used as the example of exploitation for all. I am proud of what we provide as an agency. I am also a very strong advocate for the folks I serve especially to provide the opportunities for a quality day of work that no one else wants to.
    Besides being closely monitored by the department of labor, state and county audits,visitations from legislators, advocates, professionals from OPWDD, OMH and national certification all have left our facility praising our organization for the safe ,clean comprehensive level of support we provide to each person as an INDIVIDUAL.
    No,not all people with disabilities require a workshop setting however the fact is many do. A large problem we are facing now is the average age of people who attend. It is difficult to have people at higher ages with disabilities qualify for physically demanding community jobs. 40+ yr olds are currently in a setting that continues to meet their Individual needs. How is that determined ? Individual reviews are conducted monthly to help to determine where a person is in their progress,if any at all for employment opportunities in the community. Many of these opportunities however are turned down by family or the individual. But little known to most, it is done through choice. Thats the missing piece of all of this. Where is the choice ?
    I have worked in this environment for 24 yrs. have trained 100’s of individuals for community employment with successful employment retention rates. I also lend support to 40 people in our workshop as a vocational counselor. Should people with disabilities be working ? Of course. But to say all should be in the community is an uneducated statement of the realities of this field. With sadness and empathy I can say not all people with disabilities are able to do so in the community, thats why the INDIVIDUALS make the choice of sheltered workshops. They will not benefit from dayhab without walls where a pay check does not exist. Warehousing will have a new meaning when they are sitting in the mall coffee shop eroding mentally and physically.
    I guess having transportation to work , person centered planning , medical and mental health oversight , advocacy, OPWDD and OMH oversight and the opportunity to make a wage based on ABILITY is exploitation?! !
    Choice…no one has come to my facility and asked our folks what they want. I welcome it just like other quality of service agencies out there providing for people with disabilities who by the way, are the first ones to get screwed when the money needs trimming which is the case here. If saving money is such a concern then why stop the workshops.They cost half of the other proposed services that Private agencies will provide.
    One last note : I am also married to a 25 year supported work job coach. I am informed of situations of exploitation and abuse in the community along with of course success stories. Reality is ; hours and work days are slashed for our folks first. Then what ? Stay home and do nothing ?!
    So I ask ..what is best for our special needs population? Venturing into an unknown world of new services after 20 years of quality service, that does not promise a pay check, transportation, or job support, (because that is limited with time on the job, but no one mentions that) however does promise anxiety and fear. I know because I hear it daily …
    Or, is it best to offer especially for the aging person, a closely monitored individually chosen work center?

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