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Robert Petrie takes pride in his job. The 38-year-old started working as a Walmart cart attendant in Sedalia, Missouri, nearly two years ago. He made the move when he said his old job with McDonald’s wasn’t challenging enough anymore – the same reason he decided to move on from the job he held before that.
“What I like about Robert is he’s a self advocate,” said Kim Anderson, director of employment services for the Center for Human Services in Sedalia, which is about 90 miles southeast of Kansas City. “He literally was like I’ve had my first job, I’m ready to move forward.”
Petrie has developmental disabilities. Though he has held jobs in his community for more than five years, his time with Anderson goes back to his days working in CHS sheltered workshops – government-subsidized facilities where people with disabilities can work in controlled environments with accommodations and support from staff and supervisors.
Sheltered workshops also have governmental permission to pay workers less than the minimum wage to help offset the costs to employers for the purported lower productivity levels of employees with disabilities.
Petrie, for example, worked in CHS workshops for 14 years, earning a piece-rate each time he helped make a U.S. Navy apron, completed a welding task or finished a host of other assignments. While he said he doesn’t remember his exact pay rate, state officials report most sheltered workshop employees are paid less than the minimum wage, with some earning as low as about $1 per hour.
Then in 2016, CHS helped him enter the traditional workforce. Within a few years, the group ended both of its sheltered workshop programs, shifting its employment focus to helping adults with disabilities find and keep jobs in their communities, earning at least minimum wage. This is known as supporting competitive integrated employment.
The story of Petrie and the dozens of others who transitioned from sheltered workshops to outside employment is emblematic of the ongoing national debate about the role of disabled adults in the modern workforce.
Although subminimum wages and sheltered workshops were seen as innovative solutions for the disabled community when they were first made legal in the 1930s, today they are highly controversial.
Many advocates say keeping disabled employees segregated in workshops is discriminatory. They argue that most adults with disabilities could and should succeed in typical jobs that pay minimum wage or higher with proper support, such as transportation to and from work or a temporary on-site job coach to help an employee learn the ropes.
Others view it as a cautionary tale of how an overemphasis on competitive employment forces a one-size-fits-all approach on a population with diverse needs.
“What is being missed in this conversation is that men and women with IDD (intellectual and developmental disabilities), the most significantly challenged group, do not fit the current model,” said Kit Brewer, legislative chair for the Missouri Association of Sheltered Workshop Managers.
Although many on both sides of the debate insist that sheltered workshops and community employment services do not need to be mutually exclusive, Brewer said in reality the conflict can result in fewer resources overall.
“If you close down sheltered workshops, just to be that direct, then what is the other option?” Brewer said. “I think that’s an unfortunate loss to take that away.”
To Petrie, the decision to leave the workshop opened up his world. He says he has new friends and is confident in his abilities.
“People with disabilities think they can’t do it but they can,” Petrie said. “If they put their minds to it and they have the right mindset they can do anything they want.”
What’s more, his significantly larger paychecks granted him a new level of independence. One of his proudest moments: taking his parents out to eat, his treat.
“It was amazing, it made me feel like I was a person like anybody else in this world,” Petrie said.
At least 12 states now ban subminimum wages for employees with disabilities, and at the federal level, lawmakers face mounting pressure to do away with the practice altogether.
Yet in Missouri, sheltered workshops are fiercely supported. The state ranks second in the country for operational workshops. Last summer, state lawmakers passed legislation to safeguard the right to pay disabled employees subminimum wages in case the law is repealed at the federal level.
And this month, the state received an application to open a new workshop near Sedalia — to fill the void left when CHS closed its program.
The challenges of leaving sheltered workshops
Supporters of sheltered employment often argue that the workshops aren’t just about paychecks, but the sense of community they provide.
Sheltered workshop managers sometimes host social activities, such as bowling alley trips or pizza parties, that may offer the only opportunity for disabled adults to befriend one another. In addition, many disabled employees and their parents or guardians worry that if a worker begins to make more money, it will disqualify them from receiving federal disability benefits.
CHS executives said they had to confront both concerns while transitioning from managing sheltered workshops to supporting disabled workers in community jobs.
When it comes to managing benefit payments, Anderson said the biggest hurdle was convincing people to challenge their longtime fears that bigger paychecks will mean less take-home money overall.
“When you’ve grown up your whole life with people telling you, ‘You have to hang on to your benefits,’ working 40 hours a week is very, very scary,” Anderson said.
CHS offers benefit planning services to show participants how much money they can earn before their income affects their disability checks, as well as how to manage their spending if and when they reach that point. She said in nearly every case CHS has taken on, the employee took home more money from a full-time job than they did with their disability payments.
The socialization aspect is trickier. Anderson acknowledged she misses the days when she could walk to the sheltered workshop and visit with a big group of people, a feeling several former sheltered employees also expressed to The Beacon.
But she and David Kramer, the current executive director of CHS, challenged the premise that disabled adults should rely on their places of employment for socialization.
“There’s a community perception that socialization is absolutely necessary, and I’m not going to disagree with them,” Kramer said. “I just think it’s misplaced in employment.”
Instead, he said it’s time for disabled adults to integrate into non-disabled social settings in the same way they are moving to community jobs.
Changing attitudes about sheltered workshops
The legal right to pay people with disabilities less than the minimum wage is as old as the federal minimum wage law itself. First passed in 1938, it was originally intended to provide employment options for disabled soldiers until they recuperated and returned to the mainstream workforce.
The idea of using the subminimum wage law to create special workplaces exclusively for people with disabilities didn’t take root in Missouri until decades later. With grant funding from the Missouri Developmental Disabilities Council, CHS opened the state’s first sheltered workshop in 1966 in Sedalia and a second facility in Marshall in the ’70s.
Today, Missouri’s 95 sheltered workshop locations are run by 87 nonprofits. The state is second only to Illinois in the total number of organizations with subminimum wage approval. Kansas has 26 sheltered workshop organizations.
State officials told The Beacon that while a few workshops have closed down due to budgetary issues, CHS was the first workshop operator to shut its doors while on firm financial footing.
CHS executives explained they didn’t set out with the intention of closing the workshops or taking a stand about subminimum wages. Instead, they said it was the natural result of a shift in the way they approached their employees.
The idea started in 2015, when a few CHS executives attended a conference about how organizations running sheltered workshops could move toward a model that provides job placement and support.
Anderson, CHS director of employment, said that when she returned from that conference, her team started simply asking each employee what they wanted to do.
“We allowed the change to be organic,” Anderson said during a 2019 presentation on the organization’s transformation. She said that once some employees found success, it inspired others to attempt the same. “The best marketing that we got was word of mouth from the individuals to the other individuals.”
According to the group, CHS employed 141 people between its two sheltered workshops when it started this process. By the end, 68 people were successfully employed in the community earning minimum wage or more. Another 41 people started attending activity centers, and the remaining group retired.
While the CHS decision to close its sheltered workshops is unusual in Missouri, it’s far from uncommon nationwide.
Since 2018, the number of states banning subminimum wages for disabled workers has tripled from four to 12 and several others are considering similar legislation.
At the federal level, lawmakers have made several unsuccessful attempts to wipe out the law authorizing the practice. Currently, at least two pending federal bills offer incentives for states to move away from the 84-year-old practice, including President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan. Although the bill wouldn’t ban subminimum wages, it provides $300 million in grants to states that vow to discontinue the practice.
In addition, at least 21 states have adopted forms of what’s commonly referred to as “employment-first” legislation, according to the Association of People Supporting Employment First.
These laws don’t ban subminimum wages and sheltered workshops. Instead, they require state officials to prioritize placing and supporting individuals with disabilities in integrated jobs before considering options like sheltered workshops or day habilitation programs.
In Missouri, state lawmakers have introduced employment-first bills every year since at least 2017. None was successful.
State Rep. Bridget Walsh Moore, a St. Louis County Democrat, introduced the most recent attempt in early 2021. She said that while many of her colleagues supported the idea, she struggled with misconceptions that promoting competitive employment equates to denigrating sheltered workshops.
“I don’t see why if I’m pushing for competitive employment, it’s an automatic assault on sheltered workshops. That’s not right at all.” Walsh Moore said. “That’s something we’re hoping to bridge the gap on.”
Employment-first legislation would also likely require more robust record-keeping on employment outcomes for disabled adults, something several advocates and government officials told The Beacon is sorely needed.
In Missouri, at least four different state offices offer some form of employment services for disabled adults, most with their own funding streams and reporting requirements. Even more opportunities run through county-level boards. The resulting data from each make it difficult to find accurate comparisons showing the state’s investment in sheltered workshops vs. integrated employment services as well as the number of people served.
However, some statistics offer a glimpse into the current state of sheltered workshops in Missouri. According to a September 2021 report from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), the state agency that oversees sheltered workshops, about 4,900 people worked in sheltered workshops in the prior year – down considerably from pre-COVID times. The employees made an average of $5.36 per hour.
The state’s 95 workshop locations reported total funding of more than $216 million for the year. That includes nearly $30 million in state aid disbursed to the workshops. County-level government tax dollars and other grants also fund the programs, but the largest portion of the workshop budgets comes from the goods and services they produce.
The same report shows at least 59 employees returned to sheltered workshops from competitive employment in the last fiscal year.
A new workshop and collaboration in Missouri
A few weeks ago, DESE officials received an application for a new sheltered workshop in Benton County. A report from the department said parents and guardians cited the need for services based on the closing of the Sedalia workshop in neighboring Pettis County, as well as a loss of supported and integrated job opportunities.
The application will need to go through several different phases before it is approved, including public hearings in the community.
“I think we are starting to see that some of the moves to CIE (competitive integrated employment) are leaving some people unable to find that and communities are reaching back out to the sheltered,” said Brewer, legislative chair with the sheltered workshop managers’ trade association.
Kramer of CHS said the issue is more complicated than that, explaining that other services the organization provides for adults with disabilities in Benton County prevent them from also offering employment services due to federal conflict of interest rules.
He added that the proposed workshop’s managers have already been in discussions with CHS to help any future sheltered employees find integrated employment services when they’re ready.
As for the organization’s decision to close the workshop, he said his feelings haven’t changed.
“We took a value, we pursued the value, we got competitive integrated employment for as many people as we could. And what did we end up with? We don’t need a sheltered workshop.”