Advocates for developmentally disabled adults employed in sheltered workshops say new federal rules are well intended and helpful overall but also are causing headaches and, potentially, some problems for the very workers they are intended to help.
“I hope this doesn’t discourage young people from entering the workforce,” said Aaron Martin, president and CEO of JobOne, which has workshops in Independence and Grandview.
Missouri’s roughly 90 sheltered workshops, such as JobOne, have about 6,600 workers. Martin and Bruce Young, president of the Missouri Association of Sheltered Workshop Managers, said Missouri has stayed ahead of the curve on such things as annual meetings with families to assess a worker’s status and prospects but that a 2014 federal law, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, is causing workshops to scramble.
That law, which took effect this summer, addresses below-minimum-wage jobs for those with disabilities. Now, those workers 24 and younger cannot be paid less than the minimum wage without first getting vocational rehabilitation services and career counseling. And all workers, even those who have been at a workshop for decades, have to undergo reviews soon.
“They’ve got to have than done in the next 10 months,” Martin said.
“All of those employees have to be assessed,” Young added, “and given the opportunity to work in the community as well.”
Young said there are good aspects of the law – Martin agreed – and said overall the sheltered workshops are a only a small part of what it addresses. The state of Missouri, Young said, has stepped up to cover the new assessments.
“The bad thing is this is a federal mandate and no funds were attached,” he said.
Workshops traditionally have found work for their clients through outside contracts, although piecework such as assembling medical kits has been going away. JobOne, in addition to its Independence workshop, runs a secure document-shredding operation in Independence and a recycling operation in Grandview. The idea is to match the skills of its clients – which can vary widely – to available work. Some of that work only pays so much, so workshops are allowed to pay less than the minimum wage. At JobOne, Martin said, the range is $1.25 an hour to $14 or $15 an hour.
“On average, that’s close to minimum wage, but it’s across the board,” he said.
The new rules are designed to push more people into jobs in the community. Martin and Young said their groups entirely support community employment.
“We’re about choices, and I think that’s the thing,” Martin said.
One need – something JobOne is very good at, Martin said – is taking clients who have finished school and getting them to understand the basics of how to work and hold down a job. Those skills, he said, are crucial to making the transition to a community job.
Some clients, he said, work at JobOne, then have a community job for several years and then, when they slow down a bit because of age or health, come back to JobOne. Or sometimes a private-sector employer has sudden changes. He said JobOne works to find the right fit for a client, “but as we know, in the workplace … things can change radically.”
The new federal rules could slow those transitions. Martin said the key is to treat each situation on its own merits and have policies so clients “don’t have to jump through 15 hoops just to have a job.”
Workshop managers also are concerned that the new federal law will mean fewer young people making the transition from school to work. Currently, about one special-ed student out of 40 in Missouri goes to a sheltered workshop after finishing school.
Young, who’s in Columbia, said teachers at the high schools there have already stopped working with local workshops. Instead, those young people have to go through the vocational rehabilitation process that leads to a community job, if one is available.
Martin said there’s just not enough money in the system to provide support to people in that situation and he’s worried that some, after a long interval after school but with no job, will “maybe give up on the whole concept of work.”
“... again, the thing people have to realize,” Young said, “the (reward) and dignity that people get from work is so important.”