“Sheltered” sweatshops: no lifeline for disabled workers

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Employed in a publicly funded sheltered workshop in Beaverton, Ore., Paula Lane has earned as little as 40 cents an hour. Lane, who has autism and an anxiety disorder, works with 100 other people with mental and physical disabilities. She is also a plaintiff in a class action lawsuit, the first of its kind, filed in January 2012 against the state of Oregon. Lane v. Kitzhaber seeks to find these segregated job programs in violation of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the 1973 Rehabilitation Act.

Sheltered workshops hire people with disabilities to do simple labor, such as folding bags, packaging gloves, and shredding paper. The only nondisabled people the workers interact with are staff and managers. Their jobs don’t offer training for advancement, and environments can be noisy, crowded, and hazardous.

While promoted as stepping stones to mainstream employment, these ghettoized workplaces are often nothing more than sweatshops. The National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) published a scathing critique, called “Segregated and Exploited: the Failure of the Disability Service System to Provide Quality Work.” The report said that these job sites “have replaced institutions in many states as the new warehousing system,” one that “keeps people with disabilities in the shadows.”

Sweatshop wages made legal. A provision in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) allows employers to pay disabled workers subminimum wages according to supposed productivity, based on a percentage of what someone in the integrated workforce would make. Curtis Decker, NDRN’s executive director, writes that most workers are paid “only a fraction of the minimum wage, while many company owners make six-figure salaries. Many people profit off their labor.” Businesses running the workshops can receive government subsidies equaling as much as 46 percent of their annual revenue.

Segregated workshops began in the U.S. in the mid-1800s, when the Perkins Institute for the Blind created jobs “sheltered” from competition with nondisabled workers. Compared with institutionalization, the concept was considered cutting edge, and grew in popularity.

A different light was cast on sheltered workshops with the 1963 passage of the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act. The act prioritized support and opportunities that promote independence, productivity, and integration into the broader community, with an emphasis on employment. However, an amendment broadened the FLSA definition of disability, and this increased the number of workers that could be paid below the federal minimum wage and made sheltered workshops more prevalent.

Ten years later, the 1973 Rehabilitation Act stressed the importance of comparable wages, including for those with significant disabilities. But in 1986, the FLSA was amended again to remove any specific minimum wage floor for people with disabilities, making it even more profitable for employers to exploit them.

Supporters claim sheltered workshops provide a safety net for disabled people and are even more important now because of how hard the economic crisis has hit disabled workers, whose unemployment rate rose to a staggering 77 percent in 2011. But superexploitation in segregated warehouse conditions is barbaric, not a remedy.

Lawsuit could set precedent. Lane v. Kitzhaber alleges that Oregon violates the ADA and Rehabilitation Act because of its overuse of sheltered workshops and “failure to timely develop and adequately fund integrated employment services.” It asks the federal court to direct the state to provide the services disabled workers need to participate in mainstream, integrated settings. The case goes to trial in 2014.

Opposition to sheltered workshops is growing. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division filed an amicus brief supporting the Oregon plaintiffs. The National Council on Disability voted to develop model legislation that would phase out subminimum wage programs. And the National Federation of the Blind organized informational pickets against Goodwill.

Sheltered workshops need to be replaced with humane job opportunities that provide living wages, training, and respect. Like other victories for civil rights, it will take a mass movement to end this appalling discrimination. And, because disabled employees are workers, organized labor should lend its strength to that movement.

Send feedback to the author at jsardo60@hotmail.com

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