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Sheltered Workshops For People With Disabilities: A Reliable Opportunity Or An Outdated System?

Photo of worker sorting bottles.
Erik Neumann / KUER
Michelle Dunyon destroys plastic bottles from a medical supply company so the different types of plastic can be recycled at Life Skills.

Inside a converted office building in a Midvale business park, about a dozen people are hard at work. Two women sort a tangle of coat hangers onto a rack for a dry cleaning company. Several others are busy ripping plastic covers off cans from a nearby medical supply company so the metal may be recycled.

Karen Sanders, 58, holds a razor, slicing open cardboard boxes and separating the contents — cardboard, paper stationery wrapped in plastic and packets of ribbon.

“I break down the boxes. What comes out of that box is this: ribbon, box and this is throw away,” she said.

Sanders is one of the 55 people who work at Life Skills, an organization known as a sheltered workshop. It’s one of 14 such places around the state that employ people with developmental disabilities, ranging from cerebral palsy to Down syndrome to autism.

Sanders, who has worked at Life Skills for a year, has a mild intellectual disability. For each individual task she does, she gets paid through the contracts that Life Skills has with outside corporations. For the approximately 20 hours a week Sanders works there, she is paid slightly less than $3.50 per hour, less than half of Utah’s minimum wage rate of $7.25.

Photo of worker at Life Skills.
Credit Erik Neumann / KUER
Karen Sanders separates paper products for recycling at Life Skills.

Individuals with disabilities are subject to different labor laws than able-bodied people. According to the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, sheltered workshop employees can be paid less than minimum wage with what’s known as a subminimum wage work certificate. Often, that means just a few dollars per hour. But now a federal regulation is scrutinizing sheltered workshops like those in Utah and around the country, pressuring them to change by 2022, or risk losing federal Medicaid funding. For some sheltered workshops, coming into compliance could upend their business model with higher costs from increased support plans for employees, higher support staff ratios and more turnover as participants transition out.

“A lot of these individuals don’t work like the standard population. Some of them may work for five minutes and they stop for half-an-hour. Or they work for half-an-hour and stop for the rest of the day,” said Deborah Whitted, the director of Life Skills. “How do you determine how you’re going to pay an hourly wage for something like that?”

Data on the average wages of people with disabilities employed at sheltered workshops in Utah is not readily available. However the $3.50 per hour that Sanders earns is in line with other anecdotal examples from around the country.

Employees at sheltered workshops like Life Skills qualify for Medicaid. Each individual with a disability brings a certain amount of federal funding with them to their employer.

Despite being a proven business model, a younger generation of disability rights advocates says sheltered workshops foster a sense of paternalism towards individuals with disabilities. They say the current shift away from these facilities is about resetting expectations of what’s possible for people with disabilities.

“Sheltered work started 170 years ago and it hasn’t really changed much in that 170 years,” said Matthew Wappett, executive director of the Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University. “Still, all people with disabilities go to one spot, they’re in this spot, they’re supervised, they’re given menial tasks, they’re paid very little, and then they go home.”

Photo of Wappett.
Credit Erik Neumann / KUER
Matthew Wappett at his office at the Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University.

Wappett says sheltered workshops isolate people with disabilities and don’t provide real skills. Moreover, he says, employees with disabilities deserve fair compensation.

“If you’re going to pay somebody to work and you value them as a human being, they should be paid a fair wage,” he said.

The question of what’s the best way to serve this population to foster their independence isn’t just an issue in Utah. A federal regulation known as the Home and Community-Based Services Settings Rule, is forcing sheltered workshops to change.

The goal of this rule is to avoid isolating people with disabilities and to help them transition into more fulfilling employment. Advocates say Utah is in the middle of the pack nationally for phasing in these new regulations.

“With some changes on the federal level, a lot of these centers believe that their days are numbered,” said state Senator Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, who supports sheltered workshops. He says they provide an important option for people with disabilities and their families.

“What I fear is that if we eliminate these group settings that they [people with disabilities] just will be sitting at home,” Weiler said.

A handful of states have also banned the practice of paying people with disabilities subminimum wage. Weiler, however, has led efforts to pay for sheltered workshops with state money if federal funding goes away.

Whitted from Life Skills agrees that sheltered workshops fill an important need in the community.

“Just give us that chance to let these individuals make that decision for themselves,” Whitted said. “Some of them want to work in the community — great! But if they don’t, let them have that opportunity to work here.”

Photo of Whitted.
Credit Erik Neumann / KUER
Deborah Whitted, the director of Life Skills at their office in Midvale.

Utah State’s Wappett acknowledges sheltered workshops are seen as safe places for people with disabilities. But, he argues, that was said about institutions that were used to warehouse individuals with disabilities until the 1970s.

“They see it as threatening their business. And, to be honest, it is. It’s a change. It requires their business model to change and evolve,” Wappett said.

Getting individuals with disabilities employed in the community will be a big part of that change.

Karen Sanders is one of the few Life Skills employees to have a second job. For the past few months she’s been working as a cashier earning minimum wage at a local Dollar Tree. Whitted estimates employees like her who are working in the community make up about one percent of their total participants.

Between cutting up boxes Sanders says she prefers Dollar Tree to Life Skills, but adds, they need help here at Life Skills. So, in the meantime, she’ll keep coming in.

Erik Neumann is a radio producer and writer. A native of the Pacific Northwest, his work has appeared on public radio stations and in magazines along the West Coast. He received his Bachelor's Degree in geography from the University of Washington and a Master's in Journalism from UC Berkeley. Besides working at KUER, he enjoys being outside in just about every way possible.
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