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Feds: Sheltered Workshops May Violate Disabilities Act


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The Obama administration is coming out in support of a group of adults with developmental disabilities who say they’re being relegated to sheltered workshops even though they’re capable of working in the community.

Attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in late April in a class action lawsuit pitting some 2,300 people with developmental disabilities against the state of Oregon.

In the suit filed in federal court in January, residents with disabilities alleged that the state is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to provide supported employment services, which allow people with disabilities to work in the community.

Now, the Justice Department is weighing in saying that limiting people with disabilities to sheltered workshops is no different than segregating them in institutions.

“The unwarranted placement of persons with disabilities in sheltered workshops similarly perpetuates ‘unwarranted assumptions’ that such persons are ‘incapable or unworthy’ of working in competitive employment or interacting with non-disabled co-workers or customers,” wrote Justice Department attorneys in the statement of interest.

“Thus, the placement of persons with disabilities in segregated sheltered workshops on even a part-time basis, when they could be spending these hours working in the community with appropriate supports and services, is sufficient to state a claim under Title II (of the ADA) and the integration regulation,” federal officials continued.

Individuals with disabilities who are named in the suit have experience working in the community at McDonald’s, Safeway and other companies. Nonetheless, without supports they have no choice but to work at sheltered workshops where they earn less than the state minimum wage of $8.80 per hour, according to the initial complaint filed in January.

Meanwhile, others involved in the suit say they’ve been asking for assistance in finding competitive employment for years without any luck.

Those behind the lawsuit say they want Oregon to offer supported employment services to thousands.

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Comments (27 Responses)

  1. John says:

    “The unwarranted placement of persons with disabilities in sheltered workshops similarly perpetuates ‘unwarranted assumptions’ that such persons are ‘incapable or unworthy’ of working in competitive employment or interacting with non-disabled co-workers or customers,” wrote Justice Department attorneys in the statement of interest.

    “Thus, the placement of persons with disabilities in segregated sheltered workshops on even a part-time basis, when they could be spending these hours working in the community with appropriate supports and services, is sufficient to state a claim under Title II (of the ADA) and the integration regulation,” federal officials continued.

    Where do you draw the line? These Justice Department statements are irresponsible in that they take a broad brush across an issue that requires a fine point pencil.

  2. Brigid Sullivan says:

    I could jump on this bandwagon in a New York minute! Locally some people who have developmental disabillities cannot access a community work enviornment unless they go to the workshop to be “trained”. I have never liked the workshop concept,and think existing policies prohibit people who could be working in the community from doing so. I will surely follow this subject.

  3. Betsy Zimmerli says:

    I am concerned that sheltered workshops will end up not receiving support. These workshops are often the only possible option for those whose disabilities are so impacting that finding a job in a community would be an impossibility, especially given the economic climate, and lack of job coaches which are needed for people with extensive intellectual and communication challenges if they are to work in a community job. Workshops give these folk some type of contribution to make while getting the support they extensively need. Don’t throw out the Baby With the Bath, please.

  4. Kathy Lutz says:

    Well, if the Feds would get proper funding to Vocational Rehabilitation, then maybe these folks wouldn’t end up stuck in Sheltered Workshops. It seems like every year, Voc Rehab’s budget gets cut more and more; so that only those with severe disabilities can qualify for services and with a severe disability they will probably NOT be able to work in competitive community employment.

    The workshops are necessary for those who have severe mental/cognitive/intellectual disabilities that prevent them from working in the community. However, they are not meant to be a catch-all for everyone with a disability.

  5. Barb says:

    I agree that sheltered workshops needlessly segregate people with disabilities. How many “typical” people do you see working in sheltered workshops for sub minimum wages? I know of people who work a full 35 hour week at sheltered workshops and only receive a paycheck for $20.00! Many of these people have been receiving “training” for their whole adult lives in these workshops.

    Vocational rehab needs to be fully funded in order to get people with disabilities out in the community where they belong with the appropriate supports and services so they can be successful.

  6. Mary Magnon says:

    Hopefully the Oregan group will be successful and a ripple effect will cross the nation. There are far too many adults with developmental disabilities in sheltered workshops who could be gainfully employed if the organizations who run these workshope didn’t find them to be more profitable when kept in the “shop”. It requires individual effort on the part of the “trainers” to assure successful employment where in a workshop one “trainer” can oversee dozens of DD “employees”.

  7. Paul Harvey says:

    Years ago I served on a Presidential committee working on this very issue. Of the almost 100 members there were two of us that were business participants and employed people with developmental disabilities. The rest were from academia. Our job was to make recommendations to then President Clinton.
    Many concerns were discussed about how work shelters treated their workers. Many members wanted to recommend immediate closing all work shelters. Yet, no one had a plan of what would happen to all those presently in workshops – would business hire them all – NO.
    There are many many levels of abilities of this population. Not all can work period, yet without a day program or a sheltered workshop they would have no place to go. Mom or Dad would have to provide day care. We must be careful with good intentions without weighting the consequences.
    In your article you use the phrase “competitive employment”. Although some of the developmentally disabled population can compete with non-disabled workers for a job or the company has a commitment to hire a percentage of developmentally disabled workers. However, only a small percentage of this population would be considered by business as competitive. Today a company can get well qualified high school graduates or some with college work for minimum wage.
    Most reports I read show a 60+ percent unemployment for this population – so how exactly will this unemployment rate go down? Ask your local school district, college, university (especially those with Special Education training for teachers) if they hire people with developmental disabilities. As your local school district if they require passing of a written test to be considered for the lowest level position. Ask if they provide training opportunities of students ages 18 to 22 who are still students. Ask your local City Council if they hire this population. Ask your State Representative if you State has a program promoting the hiring of the developmentally disable in State jobs or in State outsourcing contracts.
    I salute the idea of every State providing supported employment. I have utilized this population in my areas of responsibility for 15 years and give talks to businesses, school districts, and supported employment agencies on how this population is a “win-win” in so many ways. I know how difficult placement of this population is – in a word know where we are going before crossing the bridge.

  8. Greg F. says:

    Ironically, Federal Medicaid money now provides that adults with disabilities may attend private day habilitation programs, away from sheltered workshops, where they may choose not to work at all. I agree that capable adults with disabilities who would like to work in the community and to earn more money should have the opportunity to do so. This proposition requires much more than an idealistic attitude . . . it requires a willing community and supportive co-workers . . . in a nation where unemployment well exceeds 10% in many areas. When you consider the challenges of placing adults with disabilities into community jobs and the other possibility that they may choose to attend many non-vocational daytime recreation programs that are also supported by Federal Medicaid dollars (your tax money), working in a sheltered workshop program at a reduced and fair wage appears to be tax dollars well spent.

  9. David says:

    Unlike all people, all disabilities are not created equal.

  10. Annee says:

    How much assistance and/or special “supports and services” are we supposed to provide for one person to have a job? The issue I believe comes down to who pays, and just how many jobs are available for people without disabilities, let alone people with disabilities. Once again, the feds demand without being willing to pay the cost.

  11. Jack Daly says:

    In times like these, when employment opportunities for everyone, not only the developmentally disabled, are shrinking rapidly, along with the funding available for the supports and follow-along services that make community employment possible for those with special needs, sheltered workshops still serve a vital function….providing opportunities to earn and to learn.

    One should be wary of characterizing all sheltered workshops as limiting and exploitative.

  12. Chaz Nickolaus says:

    The dirty little secert that most have forgotten is that Sheltered workshops are businesses, they are not charities. Workshops don’t want people with the most significant disabilities, they want people who can work and work well and hard. I would prefer a formalized transisition away from these segregated work situations. Classically the “training” people recieve does not prepare them for the community work world. A lot of the power the workshops have is in predictability and transportation. Parents know that their child will be in a place for a predetermined time and that someone will come and pick them up and bring them home, so the parent can work. Workshops have become adult day care andit’s high time we begin moving away from that system.

  13. Bill says:

    Anyone and everyone can contribute to the workforce. Close the workshops and help add meaning to the lives of workers with and without disabilities through integrated employment.

  14. Cindy Somers says:

    Yes, but let us not swing the pendulum so far that our most impacted clients have no place to go and such limited hours because of the impact that community employment has on funding. We need to recognized that workshops are best for some of our people!!!

  15. Nancy Molfenter says:

    Thank you for sharing this tremendously exciting news with your readership. The recognition that the combination of segregation, discrimintation, unfair low expectations, and far less than equitable wages warrants legal and federal action is a very big step in the direction toward expanded employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

  16. tfred says:

    As a person who runs a sheltered workshop, I have to step into this discussion. We package products for production customers that get shipped throughout North America and are sold in many of the large box stores. We bid against several other local packers doing identical work. If our bid is too high we do not get it or the company sends the job to another location out of state. And yes we do bid against companies doing business in China. It is a competitive process and we succeed by being on time with the quality and quantity the contract calls for. I completely agree that more people should work in community settings and I completely disagree that all workshops should close. People in our programs range from individuals with community based jobs, many others have had community jobs that came to an end usually for speed, quality, or behavior reasons, a number of people have had supported employment programs through other providers (the day the support stopped, so did the job), some have never had a community job, and others have no interest in working. A very high number of people we work with have a DD/MI background. We do a lot in the community and are always looking for other opportunities. The people we work with are exactly like the individuals described in the responses here. Some can regularly make $100-$200 a week depending on the jobs we have operating. Other groups will barely make above $20 a week doing the exact same work. The difference comes from each person’s capabilities. We often bring in temporary workers when the volume gets high and time constraints are tight.

    A job may call for placing 20 items in a display box all facing the same way and in a specific order. The job gets priced at $1.00 per box based on the time to assembly, materials needed, skid wrap, building costs, and trucking. Group A can pick up 5-8 items at a time and quickly place them correctly doing about 20 boxes an hour. Group B often needs to place the exact same items one at a time to get them in the correct order or may need special assistance of some kind. We will place both groups on the job together with the same working hours. With time, Group B may get to placing two items at a time doing about 5 boxes an hour. Essentially it would take about 4 people in Group B to do the same work volume as one person in Group A. Do I pay them all a flat $10 hour regardless of how many boxes each person actually complete per hour? Or do I pay them for what they individually complete? If only Group A does the job they could put out 20×5 people = 100 boxes an hour at a labor cost of $50 which is $.50 per box. If 1 person from Group A and 4 from Group B do the job, they put out (1×20)+(4X5) = 40 boxes an hour at a labor cost of the same $50 which would be $1.25 a box. Group A allows a $.50 margin while Group B loses $.25 per box. If you were an employer, how many people in Group B would you employ?

    Do we get money for the state for services? Yes. That pays for the extra instruction and quality inspection that our competitors simply do not have to do. We never lay anybody off and are able to tolerate occasional behaviors of a select few that would mean immediate firing at any employer. Why don’t the people in our workshop simply work for our competitors? Fifteen have. Fourteen were let go for speed or behavior on the job. Unlike what Chaz says, we work with anyone regardless of their speed. Hard work for one person is simply cruising for someone else. Some our best workers have behavior episodes that simply will not be tolerated in any community setting (and have involved the police). Some of our slowest workers are terrific individuals who simply have slower work speed that local employers will tolerate.

    For people who disagree with what I wrote, have at it. If you feel everyone should have a community job, I agree with you. The issue becomes how to pay for it. Yes, I have read the Segregated/Exploited documents from NDRN and the responses from Access, Mark Knuckles, and others. May I suggest you go into business, have to pay the bills, and make sure you hire 8 people from the local workshop. Put your philosophy to work.

  17. Jeannie says:

    One word “CHOICE” what works for some does not work for all. As everyone should have opportunitie, they should also have choices. If you read all comments – choice it what you’ll read between the lines.

  18. Laura says:

    Although I fully recognize that some of the severely disabled people working in sheltered workshops would not be able to find employment elsewhere, I believe workshops have a tendency to lead to the exploitation of the disabled in some (although certainly not all) cases. I would like to see sheltered workshops, or at least the sub-minimum wage, eliminated. Instead, I would prefer to see disabled individuals who are unable to work in mainstream employment participating in adult day care programs or doing volunteer work in which they would still have an opportunity to contribute positively to society without risk of exploitation.

    Due to the limited resources of the U.S. Department of Labor and state labor agencies, the pay and employment practices of sheltered workshops are simply not being adequately policed. This leaves an extremely vulnerable population without adequate protections. Current law allows workshops to set sub-minimum pay rates themselves, theoretically based on prevailing wage surveys and time studies. No one monitors to see if this is being done properly and, in my experience, it isn’t always. Unconcientious workshops can set whatever pay rates they want without consequences, and the disabled are often without the intellectual or cognitive ability to challenge the practice. In other words, it’s like the fox watching the chicken coop.

    I reject the notion that the disabled should just be happy to have employment in a sheltered workshops because it gives them a place to go every day and a (very) meager income. This demeans the whole concept of employment. Put the resources into adult day care orvolunteer opportunities, but don’t call sheltered workshops “employment.”

    My developmentally disabled sister works in a sheltered workshop that receives million of dollars in state funding. She is paid less than 50% of minimum wage while, based on a review of the workshop’s tax returns, its admiinistrator is compensated in the mid one-hundred thousands and has received hefty pay increases in the past several years. The goverment funding is not getting to the individuals it was intended to help, and is instead going to overpaid administrators who don’t comply with the law. Given the lack of legal oversight, I highly doubt that this is an isolated case.

    I want this to stop. Workshops either need to be adequately monitored and regulated by an independent party, or they (and the sub-minimum wage) need to be eliminated entirely.

  19. Donna Harrison says:

    I am the Executive Director for a private non profit agency that provides vocational training in a sheltered workshop environment. In Maryland the consumer has the right to choose the service provider and can change providers because the money follows the person. So the consumer is in control of their services.
    Under DHMH funding guidelines, the consumer can receive Resource/Service Coordination services and this person advocates for and identifies the services available so that the consumer can choose. Under this model it is impossible that a person could be “relegated to sheltered workshops when they are capable of community employment”. Perhaps there are some situations where consumers feel that their skills exceed their jobs, but I feel that it is unfair to lump all workshops as holding people back.

  20. Steve Peterson says:

    Our Job Center is one of the larger employers in our county. We use a mixed workforce of disabled and non disabled workers working side by side in a competative work environment. Our center does receive state funding, but more than 70% of our annual budget in earned through the goods and services we provide. Most of our work is piece rate, but based on competitive rates for similair jobs in the community. Our employees also have opportunities to work in the community at various job sites. Our goal is to be free of state funding and not pay less than minimum wage to any worker. We are attempting to use training and technology to increase productivity and wages. There are no short-term answers to the challenge of employing people with disabilities. Many issues, including the lack of transportation, limit employment options for the disabled. Closing job centers or sheltered workshops will not result in more employment opportunities, but will leave many disabled people sitting at home without jobs especially in rural areas. At a time when state funding serving the disabled is being cut by 20% or more closing one of the few options they have for employment is not a solution. Many job centers are evolving to meet the challenges of the world of manufacturing and a down economy. Challenging us to be better and offer more options for the disabled is a better answer.

  21. Patricia Fogarty says:

    Employment in a community setting is the ideal situation for all people regardless of disability or anything else. It is also a vehicle to “recovery” for many individuals. The class action suit being filed however does NOT take into account the fact that there are still many people with a disability who can not and will never be able to work competitively for many different reasons, similar to people who have heart disease or chronic back pain due to bulging disc’s etc., sometimes they also can not work and rather collect disability for the rest of their lives. The Work Centers of today are nothing like the Work Centers of yesteryear, and for so many people they are still providing an environment where they are safe, working at the pace and with jobs that they can successfully complete, are integrated with other employees who are also working, contributing to society and are either NOT collecting SSD or are collecting at a reduced rate because they are WORKING. If an individual TRULY CHOICES to participate in a Work Center program they should have the RIGHT just like anyone else who wishes to work for the State, County, in Macy’s etc. We are always touting that people with a disability should be given CHOICES, however at the same time their CHOICES are becoming less and less as the government continues to close programs in order to close the DEFICIT!!

  22. Lori Challinor says:

    My late friend Will informed me – often – he would prefer to be homeless rather than return to the human parking garages that are sheltered workshops. Another example of the exploitation and infantilization of persons with disabilities.

  23. tim says:

    december 1984 i got a call from the vocational rehabiliation counselor judy lockhart and said i have to go the sheleterd workshop/sweatshop at 4009 west wendover avenue i told i don’t want to work there on may 5th 1896 i was sent to goowill industries for 7 weeks on june 20th my vocational rehabilational counselor said i need to take work adjustment classes i said i’m not intersted the work adjustment coordinator asked if was anyone saying bad thing about goodwill industries i said no they wanted me to work another 6 weeks i got an attitude with both of them they wanted me to do house keeping i worked for lousy subminimum wages $335.10 cnents was all i made it’s nothing but slavery it needs to be ended as soon as possible the disabled deserved to be treated with respect not as slaves for these so called sheltered workshops it’s baby sitting grown men and women shut these adult day centers cut funding to these programs its a waste of county state and federal tax money end sheltered workshop slavery now.’

  24. tim says:

    sheltered workshops don’t pay nothing but subiminmum wages there people stuck in shelterd workshops 30 40 even 50 years old it’s like baby sitting grown men and men looking at the wall wasting thier time

  25. Jane Brooks says:

    Hello advocates. I am the mom of two wonderful sons. One is still home and is a 16 year old sophomore. He has ds-asd and apraxia. He attends school in Wyoming. We are civil rights advocates for people who have differences. I am also a Medicaid provider for people who have disabilities. The placement of students who have disabilities in “special education” rooms in my experience here. Denys them of a education. It teaches the typical peers that they do not belong with them. Although the school documented he did better in inclusion they still insisted on the segregation upon arrival to high school. All students with disabilities are required to attend the vocational program which is trash, cleaning, laundry, picking up the recycled paper from classrooms of students that have a right to education and to listen to typical peers . This system teaches they are not worthy , promotes bullying, and ignorance. I am bullied as a parent horribly and nobody cares. One of my sons classmates killed himself Oct 2012 because of the bullying of disabled kids .

  26. MJH says:

    Im reading this today in 2013, as things are becoming even worse for the DDpopulation in America and in NY, where Im from. Im a Medicaid Service Coordinator and QIDP and want to illuminate some other aspects seemingly unconsidered by everyone posting here. If the individuals earn more than $790/month ( the federal threshold limit for monetary income to maintain Medicaid eligibility), their Social Security will decrease commensurately, making them ineligible to keep their Medicaid coverage unless the overage amount is paid back by them every month. It is referred to as a “Medicaid Spenddown”. But if they are unable to meet that spenddown because of things like paying rent or supplementing the ever decreasing food stamp allotment, they could possibly lose that Medicaid. Without the Medicaid, the supportive services stop. It would have to be paid out of pocket by themselves or their families. No more job coach, ineligible for Medicaid transportation to get to the job, and also any other staffing and supportive services they need for the day to day activities. Then what? At least let it be their choice. DON’T CLOSE ALL THE WORKSHOPS!

  27. tim bennett says:

    as a former vocational rehabilitational client december 6th 1984 the vocational rehabilitaton counselor called and told me i have to go the sheltered workshop industrial services of guilford at 4009 west wendover avenue greensboro north carolina i’m opposed to subminimum wage i worked at goodwill industries of central north carolina from may 5th to june 20th 1986 the counselor judy lockhart i would have to work 30 more days i said i’m not interested they wanted me to take work adjustment class i said no the work adjustment coordinator asked me is any one saying bad things about goodwill i said no goodwill industries and sheltered workshops have one thing in common their managers make six figure salaries while the disabled/ non disabled toil in a big ware house they have a nice office where it’s air conditioned while the sheltered workshop has no air conditioning sitting in hard metal chairs at a plastic table doing dull i know i assembled spindle adapters for0.08 lousy cents each that’ what they paid the lunch money provided by vocational rehabilitation $1.50 day is not enough

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