by Terry Eisenman
My position as a Personnel Administrator for a local chapter of NYSARC, involves hiring “severely disabled” individuals to work alongside non-disabled workers on an industrial sewing line that makes products for the US military. Right now, we are making a pouch that holds three mags of ammunition for the M-4 automatic rifle. The soldiers attach the pouch to an ammunition belt that they wear in combat. This sewing work is part of a contract from the Federal Government, in a program called “Source America”, and in New York it is referred to as “Ability One”. The work is competitively bid, and the non-profit organizations that win this work are required to have the majority of direct labor hours in the operation performed by those who meet the program guideline definition of “severely disabled”. (As an aside, the Source America guidelines and their definition of “severely disabled” differ substantially from other Federal program guidelines).
No one is paid less than the NYS minimum wage of $8 per hour no matter their productivity. However, participation in the Ability One program requires that all workers hit a target of at least 60% productivity, relative to the amount produced by a trained, skilled non-disabled worker doing the same or similar work, as measured by time studies and industry standards. The Military offers no allowance for poor quality, cost overruns, or an organization’s inability to meet production schedules. They want what they want, when they want it, without errors or excuses. Such pressure differs greatly from the experience of most disabled workers in a traditional “sheltered workshop” operating under a 14(c) exemption from the fair labor standards act, (FLSA).
This brings me to a topic that I know many of you are very passionate about, sheltered workshops that are exempt from the minimum wage requirements of the FLSA. I copied the following three paragraphs from the Federal Labor Department website just to be able to understand a few pertinent points about the history and application of the exemption:
“Section 14(c) of the FLSA authorizes employers, after receiving a certificate from the Wage and Hour Division, to pay special minimum wages – wages less than the Federal minimum wage – to workers who have disabilities for the work being performed. The certificate also allows the payment of wages that are less than the prevailing wage to workers who have disabilities for the work being performed on contracts subject to the McNamara-O’Hara Service Contract Act (SCA) and the Walsh-Healey Public Contracts Act (PCA)”
“A worker who has disabilities for the job being performed is one whose earning or productive capacity is impaired by a physical or mental disability, including those relating to age or injury. Disabilities which may affect productive capacity include blindness, mental illness, mental retardation, cerebral palsy, alcoholism and drug addiction. The following, taken by themselves, are not considered to be disabilities for purposes of paying special minimum wages: education disabilities, chronic unemployment, receipt of welfare benefits, nonattendance at school, juvenile delinquency, and correctional parole or probation”
“Section 14(c) does not apply unless the disability actually impairs the worker’s earning or productive capacity for the work being performed. The fact that a worker may have a disability is not in and of itself sufficient to warrant the payment of a special minimum wage.”
Many ARC’s that were formed decades ago do continue to offer vocational opportunities, even though much of the funding for those programs has long ago been cut or drastically reduced. The reason for this is simple – many of the individuals and their families count on the workshop experience for vocational opportunities and life supports such as case management and counseling. It is often at such workshops that the constellation of necessary services are accessed for so many disabled individuals.
Many ARC’s often came into existence decades ago by the sheer will and determination of parents and families determined to advocate for and create opportunities for their developmentally disabled family members who had long been denied educational, vocational, and social opportunities within their communities. Many of their family members had been institutionalized from a very young age in what were called, in later times, “Developmental Centers’. I don’t think I need to relate to any of you about the abuse and indignities that many were subjected to. They were out of sight and out of the public consciousness, and the treatment and neglect they endured is a stain on the record of our so-called enlightened society. It is in this context that ARC’s were formed, and began to offer programs and services that allowed developmentally disabled individuals to finally enjoy lives of dignity and worth. Often these organizations struggled mightily (and still do) to provide vocational, residential and medical services for disabled individuals in an economically challenging, and ever changing regulatory environment.
Having worked in the field for nearly 35 years, I can assure that in my experience sheltered workshops offered a vocational opportunity for many of those formerly ignored and neglected individuals to have a chance, often for the first time in their life, to do productive work, and earn a paycheck.
I do not mean to in any way to minimize the concerns and perspective some people share relating to the issue of sub-minimum wages paid in sheltered workshops. Recent comments about the “million dollar” pay for National Goodwill Executives, while at the same time disabled workers are earning less than a dollar an hour, does raise important questions that need to be addressed by those in the field.
Our collective organizations are striving to provide new and expanded vocational opportunities that meet the expectations and requirements of disabled individuals in a new regulatory and funding environment. This will mean not only finding jobs for such individuals in the community, or in Affirmative Businesses, but also advocating for appropriate and sufficient funding so that organizations can continue to provide supportive services for those individuals. This is true whether those individuals are working in competitive jobs, supported employment programs, and yes, for now anyway, sheltered workshops.