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Nearly half a million U.S. workers get sub-standard wages in 'sheltered workshops,' says GAO study


  'A sheltered workshop is nothing more than a sweatshop':
Kansas group uses radio ads to target sheltered workshops

By Mary Johnson

"Greg, did you hear that radio ad for a sheltered workshop?"

"Yes, and in a time when Americans won't tolerate big businesses owned by Hollywood celebrities exploiting poor workers in third-world countries, we still tolerate this at home."

"It doesn't make any sense. Isn't this the same thing?"

"It's worse! Not only do people with disabilities make less than minimum wage in a sheltered workshop, the state of Kansas actually pays the owners of the sheltered workshop a large fee for each person in the sheltered workshop!"

Turn on your radio in southeast Kansas last month, and you might very well have heard this ad on your radio. It's different from anything you've ever heard -- although the sentiments are right on, you think.

You keep listening:

"Why are these sheltered workshops tolerated?" the voice asks.

Greg answers: "Because local businesses do not know that they are contributing to this exploitation. They actually think that they are doing a good thing."

"It sounds to me like a sheltered workshop is nothing more than a sweatshop."

"People with disabilities, like all Americans, deserve real jobs."

"Call Greg Jones at SKIL Resource Center 1-800-688-5616 for the truth about employing Americans with disabilities."

When the ad ends, you're left wondering: Did you REALLY hear an ad comparing sheltered workshops to sweatshops?

If you were in southeast Kansas last month, you certainly did -- and another ad, along the same lines, is playing on radio stations this month.

The first ad started right around the end of July -- right around the time many disability activists were having annual celebrations on the anniversary of the July 26 signing of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

"We were having lunch at a restaurant and the radio was playing," says the Southeast Kansas Independent Living Resource Center's Greg Jones, "and we heard an MR/DD provider advertising that they'd opened a new sheltered workshop, and if local businesses wanted to help people with disabilities, they could send business their way."

Working in a 'sheltered workshop' is not 'community integration.' It's community institutionalization.

-- Greg Jones .

Jones does not name the "provider," but it's a safe bet it's CLASS, LTD, or an organization very much like it. Every community has these groups -- groups who get government grants and who run sheltered workshops in which people with developmental disabilities work for far less than the minimum wage -- an estimated 20, 000 Kansans, says Jones. But that's this month's ad, and we're getting ahead of our story.

Jones says, "we just looked at each other -- and I went home and thought about it." Soon he was on the phone to SKIL's staffer who handles marketing for the independent living center.

"I said to him, "we're compelled to respond; we can't let this go unchecked.'"

They put the ad together over the weekend and started running it on area radio stations. A paid ad, not a public service announcement, the ad has run every day -- sometimes several times a day -- on all four major radio stations in the area -- covering the 8 counties of rural southeast Kansas and southwest Missouri that the center serves.

Not surprisingly, the organizations targeted by the ad were not happy.

"Some of the people in the community felt that they were targeting us," said CLASS President Jan Bolin. "They felt they were exploiting us; saying that we have sweatshops."

Bolin called the radio spot "a negative ad without any alternatives." She said it would have been better had all the organizations worked together and "done something a lot more positive." She suggested an ad telling the public that "people with disabilities make wonderful workers, that many of them want to work and can work -- and that's our mission."

While not calling them "workshops," Bolin acknowledged that they did have programs where disabled individuals worked at piece work, but insisted that they were only "an option for people."

In Kansas, group like CLASS are called "community developmental disabilities organizations," says Jones. They supposed to be the "gatekeepers" for people with developmental disabilities getting services under the state's home and community-based services Medicaid waiver.

"But they're also also profiteers," says Jones, "and they also run sheltered workshops."

The director of the state's Medicaid Home and Community-Based Services program, says Jones, called SKIL "to make sure we weren't using state dollars" on the ads. They are not using state dollars for the ads, he said, but money from other sources.

CLASS, he said, had recently sent out a memo saying their workshops would no longer be called workshops but "training centers."

"We follow all the Department of Labor regulations," Bolin pointed out. And people worked in their programs "only if they want. They aren't forced to."

A new ad in the series began running Sept. 1.

The ads are public education effort, says Jones. "We are trying to take the general public of southeast Kansas away from the mindset that these places are OK places to work -- because they're not. And if businesses understand that, then perhaps they won't take work there, and maybe if there's no work, maybe the providers, and the state of Kansas, will get a handle on the fact that working in a workshop is not 'community integration.' It's not 'living in the community' if all you do is go from the group home to the workshop to the group home. That's not 'integration' -- not by any means -- and we need to get people past the idea that it is. It's community institutionalization."

If you turn on the radio in southeast Kansas today, you're likely to hear the next ad in the series:

"Hi, this is Greg Jones with the SKIL Resource Center. Did you know that an estimated 20,000 Kansans work at -- or below -- the Kansas minimum wage of 2 dollars and 65 cents an hour? Many of these Kansas workers are people with disabilities. Many Kansans continue to receive piece rate pay in sheltered workshops at even less than $2.65 per hour.

Did you know that Kansas is the only Midwestern state with a state minimum wage less than the federal minimum wage of 5 dollars and 15 cents an hour?

Could you feed your family if you earned $5.15 per hour? How about if you earned $2.65 per hour? What if you had a disability and earned piece rate? could you pay your bills?"

"Let's work together -- to end employment discrimination against Kansas workers with disabilities!


If you're interested in running radio ads like these in your community, just do what the ad says: call Greg Jones at the SKIL Resource Center at 1-800-688-5616.

See also:
The case against sheltered workshops: "Disabled workers deserve real choices, real jobs," says the Center on Human Policy's Steven J. Taylor

Posted Sept. 9, 2003

Mary Johnson is Editor of Ragged Edge magazine.

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