This project is part of a collaboration between The Kansas City Beacon and the Columbia Missourian examining sheltered workshops. Beacon reporter Madison Hopkins contributed to this report.
Cindy Jacobson has worked at Lafayette Work Center, Inc., in Manchester for nearly 23 years. She does a variety of jobs, like packaging deer repellent and hand sanitizer.
“I do like my job. My favorite part is being with people,” the 44-year-old said in a Facebook message — her preferred method of communication. “There really is nothing I don’t like.”
Lafayette Work Center is a sheltered workshop — one of 95 in the state and over 1,200 in the nation.
Its average hourly pay is $3.83.
Sheltered workshops can legally pay people with disabilities below minimum wage for their work. In Missouri, where the minimum wage in 2021 was $10.30 and rising, the average sheltered workshop employee made half that: $5.15. Often based on productivity, hourly wages range from $1 to $18.13 acccording to data from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Subminimum wage has existed for as long as the federal minimum wage. In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, establishing a floor for how much workers could be paid. But the act included an exception – known as 14(c) — which stipulated that people with disabilities could be paid below the minimum as long as the workshop is certified.
The move was seen as progressive at the time, but now the workshops are hotly contested. Disability rights activists argue people should not be paid less for their work by merit of having a disability. But many families and workers see the workshops as the only option left for people unable to otherwise find or keep a job.
With 87 nonprofit companies operating 95 workshop locations, Missouri has the second highest number of the facilities in the country. At least 12 other states have begun phasing out the practice, but Missouri’s industry stays strong with backing from the state legislature.
Pay disparities at sheltered workshops
After graduating from Parkway North and Special School District of St. Louis County, Jacobson went to MERS Goodwill’s employment program, explained her mother, Leslee Jacobson. There, she tried out a variety of jobs, but she struggled to work independently. The staff recommended she move to a sheltered workshop for work more suited to her capabilities, and she’s been at Lafayette ever since.
Jacobson’s work center is one of the largest in the state. It’s part of Lafayette Industries, a contract packaging company that runs two sheltered workshops. The company aims to “exceed the customer’s expectations while employing hundreds of adults with disabilities within our business operations,” according to its website.
There’s a disparity in pay from the top down: CEO and Executive Director Rob Libera’s 2018, base salary was $138,209. On top of that, he was eligible for a bonus up to 25% of his salary — for which he received an additional $33,131 — if the center met its yearly objectives. Add on benefits, and Libera walked away with $177,187, according to the work center’s most recently available 990 form.
Meanwhile, the average employee at Lafayette Work Center ends the year with $4,821.54, according to data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education — just under one-seventh of Libera’s potential bonus.
Libera said the numbers don’t show the whole picture. Sheltered workshops aren’t meant to be like other employment, he said: They pay commensurate wage, or wages based on a worker’s productivity; wages are often supplemented by government assistance; and workshops offer benefits competitive employers do not to people struggling to find other options.
While Leslee Jacobson said she preferred not to disclose how much Cindy makes, the amount, she said, isn’t an issue.
“Her pay is really like pocket money,” she said. “And that’s fine. She lives with us, so she doesn’t really need that much.”
For Cindy Jacobson, the job is less about the money and more about getting out of the house and meeting other people.
“It’s been a godsend,” Leslee Jacobson said. “I mean, the time that she was home, she did nothing but watch TV. There was nothing for her to do. And (at the work center) there are people all about her age, so she’s made wonderful friends, and it gives her something to do every day, and she’s proud of the work she does.”
“It makes me happier and productive,” Cindy Jacobson said via Facebook message.
Jacobson’s story is similar to other workers across the state. Nearly 6,000 people are employed under section 14(c) certificates in Missouri, though not all of them make less than minimum wage. The average employee is nearly 44 years old and spends just over 11 years working at a workshop, according to a 2021 report.
Bruce Young, executive director of Central Missouri Subcontracting Enterprises in Columbia, held up a small plastic bag like the ones sold at hardware stores. He thumbed through the 14 tiny items, screws and rivets shifting beneath his fingers.
Some workers struggle to count out exactly 14, though. In those cases, the workshop adapts: They divvy up the work and take the two, four or six a given worker can sort consistently.
Young put the bag back down on the table in front of an employee tasked with checking the count of each kit in the stack in front of her, using a stick-like tool to run through them — one of a variety of tasks employees do at rows of tables. On average, they make $5.57 per hour.
(Young makes $94,390 a year, according to the company’s most recent 990.)
Young said he’s seen employees who moved to other jobs struggle to keep up with the work or make friends in the new environments. For those people, he said, sheltered workshops may be the best option to find work.
“We’re not for everyone,” he said. “But we’re an opportunity for folks that can’t find work in the community. Basically, we call it choice. A person should be able to choose where they work and live, and everyone here, they choose to work here.”
When the supervisor told Roger Crome what his hourly wage at a sheltered workshop would be, Crome laughed.
“No, seriously, how much are you paying?” Crome recalled asking.
The supervisor repeated the amount: $1.54.
Crome had searched for other employment, but he couldn’t find anywhere in 1998 Madison County willing to accommodate his needs as a blind person, he said.
So, he took the gig.
“It was something to do,” Crome said. “Unfortunately, when I first moved here to Missouri over 20 years ago, work opportunities just weren’t available like they are now.”
His job was to sort through recycled materials, but he quickly got bored and started doing other tasks around the workshop, like fixing equipment, helping other employees and whatever else needed doing. When he argued to the supervisors that this work had to be worth more than $1.54 an hour, they disagreed.
“I felt undervalued,” Crome said. “I hated going into work. I only did it because I just, I can’t stay home.”
Sam Crane, legal director for the national Autistic Self Advocacy Network, said sheltered workshops maintain a gap between workers with and without disabilities.
“It keeps people in poverty, and it really devalues us as human beings and as workers,” Crane said. “...We want the same protections from underpayment and exploitation that everyone else should have.”
Eventually, Crome found a job outside the workshop. In the 24 years since then, he has worked in traditional employment and now owns his own company. He’s also president of People First of Missouri, an activist organization supporting people with disabilities. It’s a path he believes is possible for anyone in a sheltered workshop; it’s just a matter of finding the right option.
“People that work in the sheltered workshops have a whole lot of ability,” he said. “They have so much potential.”
The problem lies in a system that makes it more difficult for people with disabilities to find jobs in the community. Instead of receiving the additional support needed to be successful in competitive employment, Crome said, people who struggle with traditional jobs are often shuttled straight into sheltered workshops.
“The fact is, whether you have a disability or do not have a disability, how many people have tried jobs that just didn’t work?” Crome said. “I’ve seen folks who have tried all kinds of jobs and just haven’t found the right one. But someone who doesn’t have a disability, it’s just kind of understood, ‘Well, they’ll find the right thing eventually.’”
Sheltered workshops 'a business'
In most states, sheltered workshops function as job training programs, creating a stepping stone for people with disabilities between unemployment and getting a job in the community — a model they receive federal money to maintain.
But Missouri’s program is different. It’s the only state in the country that doesn’t receive federal funds for its workshops; instead, the workshops are backed primarily by the revenue they generate, supplemented by state and county aid.
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That means Missouri workshops don’t have to offer the same job training programs as those in states with federal funds.
So, despite falling under the jurisdiction of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, job training is not the primary function of Missouri’s workshops: It’s business.
In fiscal year 2021, sheltered workshops in the state made nearly $187 million in revenue. Much of that comes from contract work. Workers make and package products for companies like 3M, Lysol, Dial, Resolve and more. Some have additional sources of sales: In Columbia, for example, CMSE runs the Giving Gardens, a retail nursery staffed by sheltered workshop employees.
“A good portion of our revenue actually comes from the contract work we do,” Young said. “So, in essence, we’re a business.”
This model allows workers to gain more experience in real workplace environments, as opposed to other states in which they function more like day centers, said Katie Jones, Boone Center Inc.’s social mission director.
“It’s employment/teaching,” she said. “So I’m very thankful that Missouri is unique compared to the other states.”
There are also other funds that can sometimes supplement employees’ wages, a common one being Supplemental Security and Social Security incomes. Through these programs, people with disabilities, such as Cindy Jacobson and many others employed at sheltered workshops, are eligible to receive a monthly stipend, up to $841 per month in 2022. The catch is that people on SSI can only earn a certain amount before losing their benefits.
This income can be essential in the minimum wage range, where employees make enough to no longer qualify but not enough to fully support themselves.
As Troy Compardo, CEO at Boone Center Inc., walked through its workshop in St. Peters, he pointed out one worker making the maximum possible under the limit.
“If I pay him a cent more, he’ll lose his Social Security Income,” he said. “... I’d like to pay them more, but for many of them, until you get to, like, $18 an hour, they don’t overcome that loss of Social Security.”
Employees greeted Compardo with outstretched hands and elbows, which he bumped as he said hello. People sat at benches lining the front of the warehouse, doing hands-on tasks like assembling mouse traps. They were often the ones who needed more support and thus made less than minimum wage, Compardo said. Farther in, the benches gave way to conveyor belts and machinery. The more productive the person, the higher they’re paid. Wages there average $8.71 per hour. BCI is another of the state’s largest workshops, and according to Compardo, its work is some of the most automated.
(Compardo’s yearly salary is $185,000, he said.)
Compardo stopped in front of a conveyor belt where two employees packed boxes of Resolve. When asked how long she’d been working there, one held up seven gloved fingers.
“When do you start your class?” Compardo asked her.
“The week after the next week.”
“I’m going to miss seeing you every day,” he said.
“I know you will,” she replied.
“I’m not going to be here much either because I’m going to do the December program,” the man working on the other side reminded Compardo.
The two of them were planning their moves from the workshop floor to the Skills Center, located just behind BCI. There, they’ll take classes that train them for community employment with partner companies.
BCI helps get its workers employment in the community if that’s what they want, Compardo said. The Skills Center provides the support, resources and job opportunities to do so.
“It’s been tricky because part of our goal is to, if somebody’s capable to go and work in the community, we want to push them there, but we also want to allow them the opportunity to stay here if they want to,” he said. “So, we give them lots of choices.”
The Skills Center launched in 2019 with the idea of directly connecting people in sheltered workshops to competitive employers. Once a person completes the training program, they go to work at one of BCI’s partner companies, which include a nearby manufacturing plant and hotel chain.
What sets it apart, said Skills Center Executive Director Todd Streff, is that the courses are specifically tailored to the jobs themselves, and workers go directly into the environment they’re trained for.
“We’re training to a standard versus just kind of the ‘hope and pray’ method,” he said. “We have a very targeted training in mind, both teaching the hard skills that they need but also the soft skills.”
The soft skills include more general aspects of work, such as handling stress, accepting feedback and managing money.
Over 50 people have been through the program since its first class in 2019, Streff said, and the people who finish it have an 89% retention rate in their new jobs over a six-month period. Some workers have been so successful in their new jobs, they’re able to start living independently and stop receiving SSI.
The center also includes up to six hours per month of assistance once workers are placed in their new jobs. Streff and Compardo said they could see the program being replicated throughout the state, but the biggest barriers would be transportation and finding businesses to partner with, especially in more rural areas.There’s also the matter of money. The Skills Center charges $500 per week for what is typically an eight-week program, though many fees are covered by scholarships and state grants for eligible employees, Compardo said. A sheltered workshop looking to start a similar program would need to find funding.
Lafayette Industries launched a similar program, called Step Up, in 2020. It, too, offers targeted training to people with disabilities and partners with companies in various industries to help find competitive employment. Unlike the Skills Center, its courses are designed to last one to two years, and there’s no cost to attend for St. Louis county residents, according to its website.
“That’s really been rewarding,” Libera said.
These programs are similar to those other states have implemented, Crane said, in which a specialist will sit down with a person and help them with every step of the process, from finding a job to interview coaching to accompanying them on the job and helping them learn the skills.
“Some people just need a little bit of extra support in order to successfully navigate the workplace,” she said.
Support from sheltered workshops
Marshall Krueger, 25, stocked shelves at a local grocery store. His parents thought the job would be easy enough for him. But still, Krueger struggled.
“It’s like, it just should’ve worked,” his mom, Jill Krueger, said. “But it just didn’t.”
After attempting several jobs, Krueger began working for BCI, where he excelled doing a variety of jobs, with repetitive tasks and explicit instructions. He was so successful there, he now makes $8.60 per hour and was named employee of the year in 2021.
People who work in sheltered workshops often aren’t there for a lack of trying in competitive employment. Many sheltered workshop employees attempted other jobs, whether on their own or through training programs. The problem is that, like Marshall Krueger, many struggle to find success without the kind of support workshops offer.
Tim Wallace, 28, had a similar problem. Through a training program, he tried a variety of jobs, but without step-by-step instructions and careful supervision, he struggled to understand what he was supposed to be doing and when.
“We just knew he needed the umbrella (of support). And to us, the workshop is the umbrella,” his mom, Trish Wallace, said. “They teach him a skill. They support him. (They say,) ‘Hi, Tim, good morning. Yes, you can have your bathroom break now. Yes, it’s time for your short break. Yes, it’s lunchtime.’ He needs those cues. But to actually sit down and do his job, he can do that independently.”
Tim Wallace came to work at CMSE, where many employees have had similar experiences, Young said. They can get jobs elsewhere, but when they’re not as skilled or as fast as other workers, their hours get cut until they’re making as much as or even less than what they would be making at the sheltered workshop.
Young’s son, Garrett Young, 24, was one of those employees. After graduating high school, he found work stocking shelves at a grocery store. When the store began cutting his hours, he moved to washing dishes at a restaurant, but the same thing happened there. As hours dried up, he spent more time in the basement playing video games.
Eventually, he came to work at CMSE.
“While we would love to see all of our guys working competitive employment — I, as a parent, can tell you I hope that can happen someday — in the meantime, he needs to be working, and he needs to be out of that basement,” Bruce Young said.
It’s a problem workshops attempt to navigate with their work training programs. But it also indicates a more widespread issue in employment for people with disabilities, Crome said.
“It really comes down to, if you put the combinations in place and you match an individual with a job that either is going to be their strong point or is going to build them up to where they want to be, then you can absolutely find success in competitive employment,” Crome said. “I don’t think that there’s a person out there that can’t be successful in competitive employment with accommodations and with finding the right job.”
The future of sheltered workshops
The number of states banning subminimum wage has tripled from four to 12 since 2018, with more considering similar laws.
Federally, legislators have introduced multiple bills in recent years that would ban subminimum wage, such as the 2021 Raise the Wage and Transformation to Competitive Integrated Employment acts, neither of which passed.
Missouri, however, has continued to double down on its support. In July, Gov. Mike Parson signed a bill into law that will continue to allow sheltered workshops in the state to pay their employees less than minimum wage based on their productivity. In other words, the state endorsed the decades-old practice as a fail-safe should federal legislation opposing it succeed, Dan Gier, director of sheltered workshops for the state, told The Beacon.
It follows a 2017 resolution the Missouri legislature adopted affirming its support of sheltered workshops and multiple failures to pass the Missouri Employment First Act, which would require programs providing employment services to workers with disabilities to consider placing them in competitive, integrated spaces a top priority.
Crane said it’s states with high numbers of sheltered workshops and few advocacy organizations on the ground opposing them — like Missouri — where banning subminimum wage can be the most challenging.
“What you often see is people who are really scared that without sheltered workshops people won’t have anywhere to go during the day or won’t have any options during the day,” she said.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible: Minnesota reported 84 workshops — just three fewer than Missouri — before voting to phase out subminimum wage in July.
States don’t typically ban sheltered workshops outright. But if they were unable to continue paying below minimum wage, sheltered workshop managers say they would likely have to close.
“If I had to pay (less productive workers) minimum wage or higher, I may not have enough margin and a company to continue to support them, right?” Compardo said. “So, if somebody came in today and said, ‘You’ve got to pay them all 15 bucks an hour without additional subsidy,’ that group doesn’t generate enough margin to support their wage I’d have to pay them. So, they’d be unemployed or underemployed or in a day service.”
The impact can be offset through a program offered through Medicaid, called the home and community-based services waiver, which helps provide support to people with disabilities. But day services, where adults with disabilities can spend their time socializing and doing activities with peers, don’t provide the same opportunities or benefits as going to work, workshop owners and employees’ families said.
“I can tell you, the worst thing we can do for a person is to isolate them and have them sit at home and not do anything,” Young said. “If we go away, what happens?”
Leslee Jacobson knows exactly what would happen to Cindy: She’d go back to staying home all day.
“She would have nothing to do,” Leslee Jacobson said. “I mean, people don’t realize how very, very important the sheltered workshop is.”