The concept of sheltered workshops for those with disabilities began in 1840 with the best of intentions. They were designed to give adults with disabilities living alone or with their families an opportunity to get out of the house and make some pocket change.
But many laws have since come about protecting workers with disabilities, namely, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. Federal and state vocational rehabilitation programs, work incentives (like the Social Security Administration’s Ticket to Work program), employer tax credits and deductions, and modern-day “inclusive” hiring strategies have also paved the way for this group.
Suddenly, sheltered workshops, which pay less than minimum wage with no benefits in exchange for work opportunities, seems like labor abuse. A recent report from the National Disability Rights Network, titled “Segregated and Exploited,” says as much. The NDRN, a disability advocacy, presents a strong condemnation of the sheltered workshop system as a way for employers to reap huge profits while exploiting disabled workers. These workers, according to the report, are “stuck in a cycle of poverty and isolation that offers little improvement over being warehoused in institutions.”
LOW PAY, NO BENEFITS
Labor laws allow employers of people with disabilities to pay a percentage of the minimum wage, currently $7.25 per hour, depending on the worker’s perceived productivity. Under the sheltered workshop system, most workers earn only half of the minimum, and some earn as little at 75 cents per hour. Workers seldom have paid time off, health insurance or other benefits.
Sheltered workshops have thrived for a few reasons. Federal, and state and local governments have traditionally supported these arrangements with subsidies to employers that can make up as much as 46 percent of their annual income, according to the report. That’s in addition to the profit margins reaped by paying an employee a less-than-minimum wage, without benefits.
Oftentimes sheltered workshops are presented as transitional job training that will allow workers to join the general workforce. This is seldom the case, according to the report. Most people who work in sheltered workshops stay there for decades, doing repetitive, unskilled work with no real opportunity for change or choice. For example, someone with a disability might be hired to sort mail, collate files, package or shrink wrap products, or perform basic assembly line jobs. One case study turns up a worker named Andy, who has autism. Andy has taught himself five languages, including Chinese, and spends his free time rebuilding computers. His work assignment has him shredding paper.
THE WALGREENS MODEL
All of this keeps workers trapped in a cycle of poverty and dependent on public assistance, and goes against the nation’s expressed intent to integrate such workers into the mainstream, the report says. The NDRN calls for customized and supported employment, and offers the encouraging example of Walgreens, where employees with disabilities make up 40 percent of the workforce, are integrated into the company, and are held to the same productivity standards and receive the same salaries as non-disabled workers. Since this program was adapted, Walgreens has gained rather than lost efficiency, and the company has found that changes made to help those employees with disabilities have benefited all their staff.
If one company can achieve this level of integration, many more should follow. There are so many other avenues for employing people with disabilities, and for helping integrate into the workforce at a level commensurate with their skills and interests. Sheltered workshops need to go the way of Jim Crow laws. In the words of former Congressman Tony Coehlo, who helped shape the ADA, and has epilepsy: “Work gives us dignity.”