Bare minimum 

Do sheltered workshops teach the disabled skills for the workplace or exploit them for cheap labor?

click to enlarge STEVE MADDEN
  • Steve Madden

In a small warehouse tucked into a wooded area off of Jimmy Huger Circle in Daytona Beach, a couple dozen people work at what may be the last of America's manual-assembly jobs. Two wiry men pull stringy pieces of yellow nylon out of white cords that are destined for a buoy commissioned by the U.S. military. In the rear of the room, a bespectacled young woman sits at a table where she feeds a large spool of copper wire into a modified guillotine paper cutter and cuts the wire into 2-inch pieces that are later dipped in flux, soldered and used as electrical connectors by a utility company. Most of the workers in the warehouse, however, are assembling "tangs" - metal widgets slightly larger than a fingernail that serve as attachment points for the guy-wires that stabilize telephone poles.

This unusual post-industrial workshop is even more intriguing when you consider that all of the workers here have an intellectual or developmental disability of some sort, and for their five hours of daily labor, some will earn far less than $100 in their biweekly paychecks. That's because the state minimum wage of $7.31 per hour does not apply here; rather, workers are paid by the piece, such as 1.8 cents per tang or 5.7 cents per stripped buoy cord. Because of their disabilities, few of them work fast enough to pull in a wage remotely comparable to their able-bodied peers.

This workshop, administered and supervised by a nonprofit company called Arc of Volusia, is not an anomaly - not by a long shot. Just a half-mile down the road, at United Cerebral Palsy of East Central Florida, cafeteria workers make between $2.19 and $4.63 per hour preparing food for their disabled coworkers, who earn 6 cents for every label they affix to a caulking tube. Three miles to the south, at the SMA Behavioral Healthcare facility, individuals with schizophrenia can spend four hours a day checking labels on bottles of sunscreen destined for soldiers in Iraq, a task that, on a recent workday, earned the most productive of the laborers $2.97 per hour; the least productive averaged 38 cents hourly. On other days, the workers help assemble jumper cables for local police departments. Further inland, toward Orlando, people in various facilities shape dough into dog biscuits, package hot sauces, feed documents into paper shredders, box paper clips and do scores of other jobs for a fraction of the state minimum wage.

The practice of putting the disabled to work for "special minimum wages" is legal. It's considered a form of pre-vocational training, administered across the country through what are known as "adult day training centers." At these centers, disabled adults - generally those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, such as autism or cerebral palsy, or those who simply have an I.Q. lower than 69 - can spend anywhere from a few minutes to six hours per day performing repetitive, rote tasks in "sheltered workshops" such as the one on Jimmy Huger Circle. In these workshops, the disabled help their daytime caretakers fulfill contracts to provide labor for various businesses that need help doing simple things, like stuffing envelopes for mass mailings, packaging products to be sold in shopping malls or performing a vast array of manufacturing tasks. The contracts can range in value from a few hundred to nearly half a million dollars, and revenues from these contracts are usually used to cover operating costs of the adult day training center, any materials needed to perform the labor and, of course, the modest wages paid to the disabled workers.

Given the decrease in state funding for disability services, adult day training operators say the income they derive from these contracts is increasingly necessary to keep them afloat. And when it comes to wages, operators argue that they would go bankrupt in a hurry if they had to pay their decidedly less productive workers the same wages as a normally abled person.

They also say it's beside the point: Their mission, after all, is to train disabled adults for the workforce by exposing them to an "environment of employment," not to give them a career. There are an estimated 349 adult day training centers in Florida, which serve 12,484 people; most also include services such as physical therapy and mental health services.

Yet many academics, advocates and activists argue that sheltered employment perpetuates discrimination against the disabled by keeping them hidden from the public eye and paying them sub-par wages. Recently, that message has intensified. The nation's largest self-advocacy group for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities has called for an immediate moratorium on admissions to sheltered workshops; the Association for Persons in Supported Employment has called for the elimination of the sub-minimum wage by 2014, and in January of this year, the National Disability Rights Network released a report called "Segregated & Exploited: The Failure of the Disability Service System to Provide Quality Work," which contains this call to action: "It is time to end segregated work, sheltered employment and sub-minimum wage. Now." All of the aforementioned groups argue that more emphasis should be shifted from sheltered employment in workshops to supported employment in the community, which other states have implemented to some success.

Interestingly enough, the people who run sheltered workshops often agree with their opponents in this regard - but they say there are several obstacles to changing the way the disabled are employed, such as stubborn parents, the workers' fear of losing Social Security and Medicaid benefits, and the prejudice and volatility of the outside world. "Quite frankly, if all of our clients worked at Home Depot, we would be done," says Tom Czopek, project manager at SMA Behavioral Healthcare. "And that would be fine. Just like a cardiac unit would be just fine to close their doors if nobody had heart attacks anymore … But that's not the reality. The reality is there are people who are in real need, in real bad ways."

Five days a week, in a large room of what was formerly the Callahan-Eckelson hospital in west Orlando, 30 people fold and stack white washcloths, drawing from the heaps of clean laundry dumped onto the tables at which they sit. At the front of the room sit 6-foot-tall plastic carts into which the washcloths are deposited; some 32,000 neatly stacked and folded cloths leave the facility every day and eventually make their way back to the restrooms of Walt Disney World's resort hotels.

This is but one of the many menial jobs contracted or subcontracted by area businesses to Quest Inc., a nonprofit company headquartered in Orlando that operates two adult day training centers in Central Florida. Every weekday, developmentally and intellectually disabled adults, ranging in age from their early twenties to late fifties, come to "learn job skills that can prepare them for the responsibilities they would face in an outside workplace." (The majority are admitted on a Medicaid waiver - a voucher to spend Medicaid money on non-medical expenses - paid directly to Quest by the state.) It's difficult to argue that washcloth folding is one of those skills, however - Disney does not employ people in-house for that task, and the most comparable job, towel folding, is performed by a machine.

Quest's stated aim is to "build communities where people with disabilities achieve their goals," but it describes itself differently when it tries to secure competitive contracts from area businesses. "We don't market it as: ‘Quest Inc. serves individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, blah, blah, blah,'" says Michelle Bellamy, vice president of QuestWorks, the subdivision of the company focused on employment. "The reality is, that's not something they want to know. If I'm applying for a lawn service contract, we say we provide lawn service."

Quest won't say how much of its $4,966,713 in revenue for QuestWorks last fiscal year came from contracts it employed its disabled clients to fulfill - the company is tight-lipped when it comes to numbers - but like other adult day training centers in the area, it's certain that Quest pays some of its clients below the state minimum wage. The organization holds a 14(c) certificate from the U.S. Department of Labor, which allows employers to pay "special minimum wages" to disabled workers based on their productivity, a provision that was added to the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1986. The justification used by both the feds and the operators of adult day training centers for paying subminimum wages to these workers is that it allows disabled people employment opportunities that would otherwise not be available to them in the competitive marketplace.

Each special minimum wage is particular to the individual and the task. Determining that individual's wage means quantifying his or her productivity, comparing that to an average able-bodied person's productivity and dividing one number by the other. If a disabled person is deemed to be half as productive, he or she gets paid half of the prevailing wage for that job; only one-tenth as productive, only one-tenth the prevailing wage, and so on.

For piece-rate jobs such as assembly and sorting, the determination is fairly easy. If the industry average is 300 washcloths folded per hour, and the prevailing wage for an able-bodied person doing that job is $7.50 per hour, then the piece rate is the prevailing wage divided by the production rate, which would be 2.5 cents per washcloth. (This is a theoretical example; Quest declined to disclose its actual piece rate for washcloth folding.)

Individuals with the most severe disabilities - such as those who are wheelchair-bound and/or require "hand over hand" assistance - bring in the paltriest checks on piece-rate jobs. When Czopek is asked what the smallest paycheck at SMA Behavioral Healthcare is, he says: "That's easy - pennies, hardly anything." But he adds: "You might [only] make enough money to go and buy a soda, but you're still going to have that money and a chance to work, because I'm not going to fire you."

For hourly jobs, on the other hand, the process of determining a "special minimum wage" requires an exacting and detailed "time study." For instance, to determine the wages for trash pickup at the Daytona Beach Flea & Farmers Market, staff from SMA Behavioral Health cordoned off a 50-by-100-foot area of the parking lot, timed a staff member cleaning up the bottles, cans and wrappers in that area, then emptied the bag on the same area, spread the trash accordingly and had a mentally disabled person clean up the same mess. The slowest of the eight people who took that time study currently earns $3.68 per hour, which means that person took about twice as long to clean up the trash, since the prevailing wage for that position is $7.38 per hour.

To adult day training centers, the time and effort spent getting permission to pay special minimum wages is not just a matter of savings, but survival. "I would love to pay everybody a lot more, but you can't put yourself out of business," says Jim King, executive director of the Arc of Volusia. "If Polly only chooses to work a little bit … and I paid her, let's say $7.25 an hour, and she's only bringing in $3 a day [in piece work], the business would go under."

King also says the major advantage of working at an adult day training center is individually tailored supports such as mental health and behavioral services, general education and social outings. "It's just not people sitting here and doing tangs," King says. "It's a lot, lot more. We create an environment that empathizes with personal feelings, that motivates and problem solves their strengths and weaknesses.

"Your boss doesn't care about your fine motor skills. Your boss doesn't care about your knee joints or your physical pain. If you wanted to punch yourself in the head, I don't know how long you could keep your job. [But] we've created an environment where all those behaviors are OK," King says. "I don't think you get that at Taco Bell."

In 2007, an article was published in the Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation titled "Integrated employment or sheltered workshops: Preferences of adults with intellectual disabilities, their families and staff." The article detailed the results of a study conducted in "a Midwestern state" sampling 210 people with intellectual disabilities who attended sheltered workshops, 185 of their respective caregivers or family members and 224 staff members who knew the people with disabilities. When the latter two groups were asked if their loved ones or clients would prefer to work in a setting other than a sheltered workshop, only 38 percent of family members and 40 percent of staff said yes. When that same question was posed to the disabled themselves, however, 63 percent said yes.

The article concludes that the disability services system - comprised of both private nonprofits and government agencies - needs to align itself more closely with the desires of the people it serves, a sentiment echoed by Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network. "If you start from the premise that not everybody can work, that employers won't take people into their work setting, that they won't pay decent wages, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy," Decker says. "If you don't start with the mindset that we can get the vast majority of people out there in some kind of meaningful, competitive work, then you never move."

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there are 368,106 people nationwide earning subminimum wages in sheltered workshops of some kind; Decker, who lobbies for the disabled in Washington, wants to get that number under 100,000 within a decade. Part of the solution, he says, is for states to place additional emphasis - both financial and rhetorical - on "supported employment," which allows a disabled individual to have a job in the community through physical job aids, job coaches and/or specially "sculpted" positions based on an individual's abilities.

The advocates' strongest arguments for supported employment are the testimonials of the disabled. One example is Cindy Bentley, a woman who was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and suffers from seizures, asthma, slurred speech and impaired motor skills as a result. Bentley cannot read or write. Though she says her adult day training center was certainly an improvement from the work environment at a Wisconsin institution where she was beaten and sexually assaulted, she found it tedious to place "$9.95" stickers onto countless Betty Crocker cookbooks. "I told them I was bored, but they weren't listening to me," she says. "So I just walked right out the door."

After nearly two decades of various service jobs, Bentley landed a position as an advocate for her counterparts at People First Wisconsin, a nonprofit that pushes for further integration of the disabled into society. Bentley says that upon starting her job, she needed the help of her job coach daily. Now he only comes in once a week to assist her with voice-to-text software that helps her respond to emails. "I like that I pay taxes, and I'm in with my community," she says. "That's what's important."

Indeed, it's not only the subminimum wage that angers opponents of sheltered workshops, but the fact that workers are in facilities segregated from the general workforce. It's for this reason that the largest advocacy organization comprised of the intellectually and developmentally disabled, Self Advocates Becoming Empowered, not only opposes sheltered workshops, but also "enclaves" - areas at workplaces in which disabled individuals work separately from the rest of the employees. (Quest Inc. maintains an undisclosed number of enclaves in the Orlando area, such as a two-employee operation at Orlando Utilities Commission where workers handle salvaged materials, such as scrap metal, under the supervision of a Quest staffer.)

The vice president of SABE, Max Barrows, is an autistic African-American. "The disability rights movement is considered the last civil rights movement," he says. "In this generation, I have seen more discrimination toward individuals with disabilities than anybody of any ethnic background."

The call for integration of the disabled has also been long pushed by academics such as David Mank, director of the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community at Indiana University. Mank recalls a study conducted in the 1980s that looked at the entry-exit patterns of individuals from the job training programs which would later come to be known as adult day training centers. Based on the data, the study calculated that a severely disabled individual entering the traditional sheltered employment continuum at age 21 would not start a job in the competitive workforce until he or she was 77 years old. (The average length of stay at the Arc of Volusia, for instance, is just over 12 years; the longest-serving client has been there 35 years.) "It's not a training program," Mank says. "It's a place to go during the day."

Mank argues that the repetitive tasks assigned at adult day training centers do little to actually prepare disabled individuals for competitive employment. "People with [intellectual] disabilities are unlikely to generalize skills, so learning one kind of work in one environment does not predict that you are going to do another kind of work in another environment well," Mank says. "The answer is - let's train you where you want to do the work. Let's not send you to a workshop under this guise of ‘You're getting training, and someday you'll get out,' because every month you're there reduces the likelihood that you're ever going to get out."

There is one thing that should be noted: Many adult day training centers that operate sheltered workshops also run supported-employment programs which help the disabled work among their more able peers in the community. The Arc of Volusia is assisting 120 people to this end, SMA Behavioral Healthcare counts around 240 in supported employment and Quest Inc. says it is helping 550 people in integrated jobs. Just like the opponents of sheltered workshops, every center the Orlando Weekly spoke to for this story agreed that full integration in the community through supported employment - or even better, unsupported employment - was the ultimate goal of vocational training. Where their viewpoints diverge, though, is at the question of proportion: while advocacy groups like the Association for Persons in Supported Employment argue that there is a job for everybody outside of the sheltered-workshop environment, regardless of the severity of the disability, adult day training center operators say that getting every disabled person out into the workforce would require an effort beyond their financial means.

"Is Ashley going to get ahead working at Taco Bell or doing dishes? No, because she really can't use her arms," King says. "And they don't want her out there. Now, I don't know that for sure - but I can't get people jobs that can't talk and can't walk and need to be changed and need to be fed. Maybe in New York that works, where they have all the supports - it's number one in funding for people with developmental disabilities. But in Florida? The Southeast?" (Florida is currently among the bottom 5 percent of states in per-capita funding for those with developmental disabilities. Last fiscal year, it spent $72,960,348 to support adult day training centers across the state through the Medicaid waiver program.)

Others, like Tom Czopek of SMA, suggest that some disabled people - like those with psychiatric problems who don't take their medication regularly - are too volatile to last in jobs demanding relatively constant self-composure. "We've had some people that we've placed in jobs three, four, five times," he says.

Then, there are the hazards of the competitive workforce. Cindy Bentley tells of a friend who was blind and deaf and held a supported job folding pizza boxes at Pizza Hut for a decade and a half, until the recession hit and she was laid off. Ronda Bostock, the day program director at the Wings adult day training center in Casselberry, relays the story of a woman who held a similar job at Pizza Hut with the aid of a one-on-one job coach, to whom the disabled woman became attached. But when her job coach retired and was replaced by a different person, Bostock says, certain "behaviors" arose. "She started spitting in the boxes," she says. "Needless to say, she's no longer with them."

For some, the risks inherent in leaving the sheltered workshop for competitive employment are not worth the possibility of losing their federal and state benefits, such as Medicaid, which covers all of a disabled individual's medical expenses (or all but $500 monthly, depending on income), as well as the Medicaid waiver, which pays for disabled support services such as assisted living and adult day training. Today, nearly 30,000 Floridians with Medicaid waivers find themselves in possession of an increasingly valued asset - there are roughly 20,000 people on the waiting list for the waivers, and the state has not done a general enrollment in five years. There are also Social Security benefits to be considered; if a non-blind individual makes more than $1,000 per month, he or she is considered to be employed in "substantial gainful activity," and can be deemed ineligible for the program.

"Mom and Dad are behind the scenes, saying, ‘If you get a job, and lose your social security, and lose your health insurance, I'm gonna kill you,'" Czopek says.

Adult day training center managers say parents of disabled adults often prefer the sheltered-workshop setting because it frees up the most time for them to lead their own lives. While sheltered workshops typically mimic the schedule of the school day (and hence, the workday), jobs for the disabled adult in the competitive workforce are often part-time and feature shifts as short as a couple of hours (often requested by the disabled person in order to keep federal benefits). "If you're sitting at home, so is your mother - she's not working," King says. "And that's [often] the breadwinner for the family."

It's a point that Mank agrees with, but he also indicates a change in the status quo is often a matter of political will. He points to the state of Washington, which created its own supported- employment program in 1997 and whose disabled residents are employed at nearly triple the rate of the national average of 20.6 percent. Then there's the state of Vermont, which saw its last sheltered workshop converted into a supported-employment center in early 2003.

"They're things that aren't natural in the community," Theresa Wood, former deputy commissioner at the Vermont Department of Disabilities, says about sheltered workshops. "You and I don't go to work, pony up to a table and put widgets in one box, and have someone else empty them at the at other end of the table. It didn't make any sense for us, from a common-sense perspective, and from a human perspective."

Besides its various contracts with area businesses, the Arc of Volusia earns money through some of its own entrepreneurial ventures. It collects bushels of office waste paper which it feeds into a shredder and later sells to a paper recycler (workers are paid per pound of shredded paper), bakes its own line of dog biscuits (which, interestingly, the Wings center in Casselberry also does), recycles electronics from old TV sets and computer monitors (the workers seek out gold, copper, titanium, plastic, glass and steel, in that order) and sells artwork and pastries. Through such entrepreneurial ventures, King says, the Arc of Volusia has reduced its dependency on state Medicaid waivers from more than 90 percent of its revenue five years ago to 57 percent last year.

But on this day, the Arc of Volusia's hulking German paper shredder - which Jim King calls the "Mercedes" of shredders - is unattended and silent. The large cardboard boxes in the corner of the workshop, overflowing with wires, metal and other electronic junk to be sifted through, remain untouched. In the room where the dog biscuits are made - replete with posters of puppies and paw-print stickers on the walls - there is no dough waiting to be rolled and cut. Instead, nearly everybody, in every work room, is assembling tangs to fulfill the Arc of Volusia's contract with the Thomas & Betts Corporation.

"We had a deadline," King explains.

It's scenarios like these that make sheltered-workshop opponents suspicious that these centers don't really want to help their highest-functioning clients to get out into the workforce. "You don't want to lose them, because they're your best workers, and that's how you get your contract done," says Curt Decker of the National Disability Rights Network. "So there's this disincentive, actually, to move the people who really could work in a competitive environment."

It's a contention that King strongly denies. "The reason people stay here is that their parents want them here," he says. "I know some people who have been here for 20 years, and their legal guardians will not let them go to work."

Getting an idea of what the disabled themselves think about their situation in a sheltered workshop is a challenging task: With the more severely disabled, there are communication barriers; for the less severely disabled, there's the influence of staff supervising the interview. When King gives this reporter a tour of the workshop, for instance, we come across Jeoffry, a lanky young man in his late twenties assembling tangs near the rear of the workshop. Since King is aware that the Weekly is reporting on the controversy surrounding sheltered workshops, he frames his questions accordingly.

"Jeoffry, do you like your job here?" King asks.

"I do," Jeoffry replies.

"What do you like most about your job?"

"I like doing the tangs, actually."

"You like doing the tangs. What do you not like to do here?" King challenges. "It's OK, just be completely honest with him."

"Umm," Jeoffry says, pausing for a few seconds. "I don't remember."

"You don't remember? Well, what is the funnest thing you do here?"

Around a half an hour later, though, when the workers are on their first 15-minute break of the day in the cafeteria, and King excuses himself to attend to an appointment, Jeoffry beckons. He remembers now what he doesn't like about the job - lifting heavy boxes of tangs. "When I lift, my back starts to give out on me," Jeoffry says. The discussion shifts to wrestling video games, World War II, swimming at Daytona State College and the latest Shrek movie, until asked what he considers his dream job. "I really want to be a teacher," Jeoffry says.

When asked how he plans to become a teacher, Jeoffry is unsure.

He pauses for nearly 10 seconds to give the question some serious thought. Finally, he has an answer: "I don't know."



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