Amid sheltered workshops debate, Missouri pays people with disabilities less • Missouri Independent

This story was originally posted by Kansas City Lighthouse.

A new Missouri law that allows employers to continue paying some people with disabilities less than the minimum wage has put the state at the forefront of a national debate about the rights of people with disabilities in the workplace.

Part of a far-reaching legislation signed by Gov. Mike Parson in July, the rule orders the state to develop its own version of a federal program that allows wages as low as pennies an hour.

About 5,000 employees work in facilities with below-minimum wage certificates in Missouri – called sheltered workshops because workers are separated from others. Missouri has the second largest number of sheltered workshops in the country, with 95 operating sites.

Although the New Deal-era law governing such employment was considered progressive when enacted, it has come under increasing criticism in recent years.

On one side of the debate are employers – as well as many disabled workers and their families – who say that the purpose of sheltered workshops is not compensation, but rather the community and sense of purpose of people who fail to succeed. not in the traditional workforce. They fear that without exemptions from the law on wages, sheltered workshops will be forced to close.

On the other hand, disability rights advocates argue that the practice is outdated, discriminatory and unnecessary when many resources are available to help employees with disabilities succeed in integrated community environments.

Paying people with disabilities less than the minimum wage “devalues ​​their time,” said Cassidi Jobe, president of the Association of People Supporting Employment First Missouri Chapter and mother of two autistic adolescents. “It sends a very clear message that their time is not worth the same amount as someone who has no developmental difference.”

The pressure to ban the minimum wage for people with disabilities has grown in recent years. At least 12 states have done so and several more are considering doing so. At the federal level, lawmakers have made several attempts to eliminate the exemption, but none have succeeded.

Dan Gier, director of sheltered workshops at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the new state law is designed as a fail-safe for sheltered workshops in the event that a challenge to the federal law is successful.

“It would be adaptable quickly and there would be no change at the workshop level,” Gier said. “We are very confident that we can do it. “

Missouri law could also serve as a guide for other states.

New Deal Sheltered Workshops Act

In Missouri, 87 nonprofits with 14 (c) certificates – named after the provision in the Fair Labor Standards Act that allows lower wage payments – operate 95 sheltered workshops that employ about 5,000 people, according to DESE. .

The type of work varies. Employees at Southeastern companies in Kansas City, handle tasks ranging from packaging cooking spices to affixing labels to medical marijuana products. Other workshops have contracts to keep state rest areas clean or to implement recycling programs.

Sheltered shop workers are paid by the hour or piece, which means they are paid for each time they complete a unit of work, such as wrapping and sealing a test tube kit.

Individual rates of pay are determined by comparing the amount of work that an able-bodied employee does to that of the person with a disability. For example, if a non-disabled worker packs 100 sets of rubber gloves into boxes in one hour, but the disabled employee packs only 50 boxes, that worker’s salary is set at 50% of the prevailing salary for this task.

As a result, not all workers in sheltered workshops earn a minimum wage. According to DESE, the wage in sheltered workshops in Missouri ranges from $ 1 an hour to $ 18.13 an hour, well above the minimum wage. The average is $ 5.15 per hour.

Kit Brewer, Legislative Chairman of the Missouri Association of Sheltered Workshop Managers, or MASWM, said the pay scales are no different from other accommodations provided for workers to be successful, such as a ramp for a worker in a wheelchair. The lower pay allows workers in sheltered workshops to work at their own pace without being forced to meet quotas or other standards.

“Like it or not, the competitive job world expects production,” Brewer said. “We may not all watch it because we are judged every day by our production levels, but I think deep down we all know better.”

Yet a United States Commission on Civil Rights Report 2020 found that the process can also be “grim to abuse and difficult to administer,” noting that each year lower paid employees have been reimbursed for back wages from employers 14 (c). Between 2009 and 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor found violations in 53 investigations into sheltered workshops in Missouri, resulting in more than $ 780,000 in back wages for employees, according to the report.

Stating that the federal exemption has prevented “people with disabilities … from reaching their full potential,” the commission recommended phasing out 14 (c), echoing other high-profile criticisms of the program in recent years. This year the U.S. Government Accountability Office discovered a multitude of barriers preventing employees from moving from sheltered workshops to integrated employment – a central goal of many programs.

During his campaign, President Joe Biden pledged to end the minimum wage for employees with disabilities, announcing his support for the Law on transformation into competitive integrated employment. If passed, the law would phase out minimum wage exemptions and provide subsidies and other resources to help move workers from sheltered workshops to integrated jobs in communities. Despite bipartisan support, the bill stalled after it was reintroduced in Congress in April.

Language to phase out 14 (c) was also included in the US bailout law passed this year to provide COVID relief funds, but lawmakers removed the provision before it was passed.

The “Missouri model” could spread

Brewer, the legislative chairman of the Association of Workshop Managers, said Missouri is the first state to pass a law like this, and it could serve as a road map for others. While he expects the law to be challenged in court, he said the state is in a good position to champion his case.

First, the current state minimum wage provides some leeway. While the federal minimum wage is $ 7.25 an hour, Missouri’s is $ 10.30 and will rise to $ 11.15 in 2022. Federal law will not allow any payments below its minimum, but the Missouri could still allow lower payments to people with disabilities than the rest of the state. workers.

Second, although Missouri is only behind Illinois in the total number of lower wage certificates issued in the state, it is the only state that does not accept federal funding for the operation or oversight of workshops. protected. Instead, the workshops are supported by public and local funds, with the bulk of their budgets based on income from the goods and services they produce, according to DESE.

The lack of federal funding in the budgets for sheltered workshops in Missouri is consistent with the state’s program goal. Federal funds for sheltered workshops are intended for services aimed at helping employees learn skills and enter the competitive workforce, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. While sheltered workshops in many other states are viewed as temporary training programs to teach employees key job skills before they enter the workforce, Missouri’s curriculum is entirely business-oriented.

“Our core business is employment and employment,” explains Gier, director of the DESE sheltered workshop. He said it goes back to the core values ​​of lawmakers who founded the Missouri program in the 1960s.

“Work brings dignity, brings pride, brings income, brings autonomy, brings the ability to choose, just like a job for the average American.”

Gier said nothing will change anytime soon as DESE works to craft rules for a state program. The goal of the new law is to be prepared in case the federal change occurs.

In a recent MASWM survey of its member stores, only 56% of the 39 who responded said they would stay open without a minimum wage. Many disability rights advocates argue that financial fears are overblown and point to states like Vermont, which phased out 14 (c) almost two decades ago and put the majority of its workers into community jobs. .

Even in Missouri, some sheltered workshops preventively decide to leave behind wages below the minimum. In 2018, a sheltered workshop in Sedalia changed direction to offer employment support to people with disabilities.

Reinhard Mabry, President and CEO of Alphapointe, a Kansas City-based nonprofit that employs people who are blind or visually impaired, said their organization ended below-minimum wage payments years ago. Although it was a financial blow at the time, the organization decided it was time.

“We saw it as intimidating – I think most nonprofits would,” Mabry said. “We just knew it was the right thing to do. So it was necessary. We had to make some tough decisions. “

University of Missouri journalism students Skylar Laird and Bolette Elsoee contributed to this report.

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