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Feds Allege Transition Program Amounted To Sweatshop


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(Updated: June 13, 2013 at 12:24 PM CT)

The U.S. Department of Justice is cracking down after an investigation found that students with disabilities were unnecessarily segregated and forced to work for little or no pay for years in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In a 17-page letter sent to local officials in Providence, R.I. this month, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said that students with developmental disabilities were paid 50 cents to $2 per hour, and in some cases nothing at all, to do tasks like bagging, labeling, collating and assembling jewelry. They did the tasks as part of a sheltered workshop while participating in a vocational program at Mount Pleasant High School.

Records for the workshop were poor and wages did not correlate to the jobs students performed or how productive they were, federal investigators found. In addition to school days, the workshop sometimes operated on weekends and at least one student said she was required to spend all day there at times in order to meet production deadlines.

Meanwhile, students were not offered opportunities to try competitive employment placements even when they requested to do so. And, once the students left high school, they were then funneled to segregated, sheltered workshops, the Justice Department found.

Nearly all high school-age students with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the Providence Public School District are part of the vocational program, federal officials indicated.

The report said that the city “planned, structured, administered and funded its transition service in a manner that imposes a serious risk of unnecessary segregation” in violation of the ADA. Moreover, the investigation found that the city developed and maintained a “direct pipeline” to a third-party provider of sheltered workshops and facility-based day services where students were directed once they finished school.

Providence Mayor Angel Taveras told the local television station WPRI that he was not familiar with the sheltered workshop until learning about the federal investigation earlier this year. He called the Justice Department findings “outrageous,” adding that the students “deserve better.”

The sheltered workshop has been shut down as a result of the investigation and under a settlement reached with the city and state, federal officials said Thursday that individuals who were directed to segregated placements after attending the vocational program will now be provided with supported employment services to “find, get, keep and succeed in real jobs with real wages.” Current students will be provided transition services with internships, trial work experiences and other offerings so that they can ultimately move into community-based jobs when they leave school.

Under the agreement, individuals with disabilities will work in supported employment for at least 20 hours per week, on average. When they are not working, they will be provided access to integrated, community-based recreational, social, educational, cultural and athletic activities, federal officials said.

The plan calls for those with disabilities to be supported with a 40-hour work week, according to Eve Hill, senior counselor to the assistant attorney general for civil rights. The agreement is the first between the Justice Department and any public entity to ensure what Hill called a “full-time integration” standard.

“For far too long, people with disabilities who can and want to work and engage in all aspects of community life have been underestimated by public service systems that have had limited or no expectations for them. Under this agreement, things are now changing,” Hill said.

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Comments (17 Responses)

  1. Karen Driver says:

    So proud Alabama has taken an “Employment First” stand via our Department of Mental Health. Adults with disabilities, including my son at one point, are paid a few cents an hour when they are working as hard, if not harder, than other employees. As a business owner, granted you cannot pay workers who cannot do the job a competitive wage, but working people hours a day for cents an hour is wrong. Help them make minimum wage by working less hours if necessary with the help of an aide/coworker/volunteer. Let them spend the rest of their day helping others via volunteer work so they are building “social capital” . . . making life long friends with people who can help them also instead of placing them in dead-end “training” programs only around people whose needs are as significant as theirs! We need to create more volunteer opportunities for retirees/seniors, college students, church groups, etc. to “work” with people with significant disabilities to provide respite for families via “jobs” for their family members. Imagine how valued someone with a significant disability would feel and how many genuine friends they could make who will grow to love and care them their entire lives if they just worked, with assistance, one hour a day two days a week (for “real” minimum wage) cleaning an office, arranging books at a library, running an errand for another disabled person who is home-bound, etc. We also have to create more truly inclusive community centers for families who have to work and “have” to have somewhere for their family member to be safe all day. Again, volunteers can help them there where they can exercise, play sports, etc. with “typical” neighbors . . not sit in a corner in a Day Program! As far as people with significant disabilities who can do a job with adaptations and hold up to a regular work schedule . . . this level of creativity is not needed, just education about their abilities and ending discrimination!

  2. Whitney says:

    I feel such work centers and sheltered programs are more common place than not. I always wanted the shelter workplace to fall under national guidelines not city or states. People in United States want slave labor and cheap goods this promote labor abuse.

  3. Joyce says:

    Sweatshop? I don’t think so. This is slavery.

  4. Susan says:

    Yay!!! It’s about time!!!!

  5. Barb Huyser says:

    Sheltered workshops fall under Department of Labor regulations at both the state and federal level. They are also supposed to go through licensure at the state level. What these people were doing was illegal and they deserve to be shut down.

    In a better world, there would be no need for Developmental Training Programs or sheltered workshops. Everyone would be employed at minimum wage in integrated settings. We are nowhere near that perfect world. Individuals with decent work skills and behaviors have lost community jobs with the Great Recession and haven’t been able to find new ones. Businesses are unwilling to carve out jobs and want employees that can move quickly from one task to the next and do whatever is needed. In my 30 plus years of experience, it has never been more difficult to find people with disabilities a job. There are too many unemployed people with skills and versatility for our folks to compete well in the job market.

    In Illinois, the state pretty much did away with funding for supported employment. We saw work that started during the 1980’s to move people from sheltered workshops into community employment go right down the drain. The month the funding ended, I had 25 people who lost jobs.

    Until we get that better world, we are going to need sheltered workshops.

  6. Tom says:

    Disgusting that this happened. Makes me wonder who else is doing such a horrible thing.

  7. Whitney says:

    I am not exactly against the concept of Sheltered Work programs.

    a. It must pay same wage for everyone such as minimum wage. (Set minimum wage for sheltered workplace that comparable to regular workforce. Not pennies a dollar compare to regular workers)

    b. It must allow for full time work if person is disabled if the individual wishes it.

    c. It must train skills for the competitive marketplace skills in case a person has to work non-sheltered environment,

    d. It must inspected every year to earn some sort of accredation of the state and federal government to prevent labor abuse.

  8. Laura Woodford says:

    This has been going on all over the US for YEARS! In Albuquerque, where I used to work as a CM, many people were basically dumped into vocational programs, where they did meaningless repetitive work for thesame pennies on the dollar. They calculated how much support they needed ( supposedly) then reduced down from min wage. These people would sit a table checking zip codes, or sorting mail for 8 hours, would not be allowed to take many breaks, not allowed to socialize at all with coworkers ( the place was as quiet as a morgue) and the environement was stale, ugly and depressing.
    This same scenario was taking place in several places around Albuquerque up until 2009 when I moved away.

  9. Teresa Roberts says:

    I would like to know how many people knew about this. Which companies profited. The only way you stop this train, naming names, companies, and implement compliance. The penalty if this were true, build a group home for individuals. Making amends would be a start.

    Anyone who takes advantage of someone with a developmental disability is disgusting. Where is Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson?

  10. ann masotti says:

    The entire environment for the Disabled in America is horrendous….this is just the tip of the iceberg. My autistic daughter had been in programs all over the country, privately paid by her family, and whenever I visited “work programs” consisted of the patients working within the Community for NOTHING….depending on how high functioning the patient, they would be working in the kitchen, answering phones, doing everyone’s laundry…..the abuse of the disabled in this Country is shocking….I have seen it for myself….many of these costly private programs are merely upscale warehouses where Therapy is given by inexperienced Therapists (a couple of years out of college)…’s no wonder we have a huge population of “professional patients”……I pray the Justice Department goes further and continues to investigate. Also, I believe the State should be last on the list to dictate what is appropriate for the Disabled…there is a Federal Law as an umbrella. Why can’t all matters pertaining to our must vulnerable be protected by Federal Law….from programs to the Courts there should be Federal Oversight….the States are just not getting it done and there is far too much room for corruption to take hold.

  11. Christine Griffin says:

    Kudos to the Obama Administration’s (DOL and DOJ) actions to provide long overdue oversight of these sub minimum wage employers. Entities like the one in RI exist in almost every state and while they are exploiting people with disabilities, their CEOs are accepting awards and accolades for “hiring the handicapped”. It is time for every Governor to examine and investigate the sub minimum wage programs in their state and at the very least, verify if they are adhering to state and federal laws while they develop a plan to end these shameful programs.

  12. Steven says:

    This is about training, not actual workers under ADA. Transition Programs – 18-22 year old young adults with developmental disabilities (usually not mental health issues-who usually exit with a high school diploma at 18), who stay in their high school district to develop skills for independence, attend programs under the Department of Education. When “IEP” is mentioned, that is only available under the school laws. Special Ed Law (IDEA) mandates community-based activities, but never cautions that their are labor laws. It is the DoE that is at fault, for not educating educators in best practice for programming employability skills training. (go to the DOL website-they do) The Department of Human Resources- Office of Rehabilitation, which is heavily involved in this, is also at fault. Their Transition Specialists where we are -perpetuate non-paid experiences during these programs-none of which follow labor laws. Even with years of training, students may never reach competitive employment levels. Good workshops and day programs exist to meet the needs of young adults and families. Some are not able to be in the job market and are provide a place to be engaged with others in as productive a day as possible. Look at ONET and give me 10 jobs that a person who does not have the abilities: see characteristic of intellectual disability, can achieve. Then tell us how ! Knowledge and learning does not remove the disability. Education is knowledge attainment, practice, generalization and application. The outcomes are, as much as this hurts, limited by the effects of a disability-even with tons of accommodations, specialized instruction, and billions of dollars. Health and safety concerns trump independence for young adults whose disability prevents them from knowing when to say “No” in every scenario they’ve not be taught.

  13. sherna pinnock says:

    “Segregated and forced to work”; simply offensive. IEPs madate transition programs for students 18-22. The reality is, finding training opportunities for students with disabilitites in the world of work is like trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack. Some business persons when asked to consider giving students volunteer opportunities, tell me they have to talk to their corporate offices. Invariably when I return for an answer they reach for what I refer to as an “out”, liability. My experience suggests that they have their minds made up – we are not going down that path. Sad. I have also found that there are workers who want to accommodate the students.
    Non-Profits and the public library have been open to facilitating students with disabilities. In those scenarios the willing people are more educated about special needs.
    Work Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities” is an area for advocay in special education. The financial input- from federal and state levels- plus training costs service providers incur should be reason enough for the broader community to take a position on abilitities as opposed to disabilitites. Shame on all the programs who “serve” persons with disabilities like that mentioned in the article.

  14. patm says:

    Karen Driver had it right. They should stop calling them workshops and change to a user friendly term like social networks, and include socialization, exercise,etc. There’s no reason they have to spend all day working for pennies. But we could make them safe health promoting places where they could learn useful skills.

  15. Ross Parker says:

    Community rehabilitation programs are not mandatory for individuals with special needs. They are but a choice. Agreed, some programs are better than others. Many offer a needed array of services that are individually designed to improve lives not only for the individual but their families. I am an advocate for choice. Reducing choices is always a two-edged sword. Over my 40 plus years of working in this field, I have seen far more people suffer from policy changes than have helped in response to extreme examples. In the lives of individuals with special needs who depend on others to advocate for them, first do your research and be ever mindful not to do more harm than good.

  16. Jane Brooks says:

    When my son and I went to a “team meeting” to get his schedule for high school we were shocked to learn that all of his inclusive education was over! In Cody Wy we were told that it is “required” that students who have disabilities enter a “vocational program” In Cody Wy that means you will be a second class citizen and be “required” to do the dirty work for those who still have a right to a education. The “we only have one vocational program” includes cleaning, laundry, trash, recycle taking dirty cans out of the trash. It does not include any text books or access to a real education. It is segregation and humiliation. The students are taught that they are second class citizens and there are NO typical peers in this program. No field trips other than one to decorate the tree at Wal-Mart which they also do in elementary school. Students kill themselves because of the bullying in this school. I as a parent am horribly bullied by the director of special services. I went thru due process alone with out son who has ds-asd and apraxia. The hearing officer yelled at the director because he was laughing and whispering at my difficulty in wording the questions correctly. My son had sign language on his IEP for over a year. The “teacher”brought a box of animal cards because she didn’t know sign.

  17. Jane Brooks says:

    The “required” vocational program for disabled students in Cody High School is no better. After students are denied a equally effective counseling program. They are funneled from inclusive education to a “vocational program” for the SUB group. They get to dump trash , clean tables, go into classrooms of students that still have a right to a education to get a few sheets of recycled paper to shred. They also get to pick up the trash outside the building and do laundry as well as fill the pop machines. It sounds like slavery to me. Oh yes and Mrs. Stegelman who has exclusive access to teaching kids history and science but no access to text books. She won’t even let parents see the pages of her three ring binder she teaches kids from because she wipes and reuses. Access to curriculum. No way! Says my print disabled son must first know how to read before he can access any classes. Oh and the activities are linked to classes you need to participate. No field trips with classes you are not signed up with. Link crew mentors are available for one day for disabled and all year for others.

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