I started traveling after two decades living in high desert. When I hit Nebraska, the humidity was stifling. By the end of June, sweltering in Missouri, I was firmly reacquainted with mosquitoes, a pest I’d been blissfully separated from for years. I needed a way to open my van windows for ventilation without being attacked by biting and stinging insects.
I found a product that would be perfect for my needs — custom-sized pieces of tent screen with magnets along the edges to hold them to the outside of vehicles, covering the windows. A brilliant idea! An idea, it turns out, that I am now crafting on my own (which means mine will be rainbow colored hand crafted art, of course) but would have rather just purchased. In fact, I put a pair of them into my online shopping cart but before I could buy them, I noticed the words on the website declaring that the company was proud to be making these products in a sheltered workshop.
I will not support sheltered workshops. Not only did I not buy the screens, I emailed the company and opened a dialogue with the owner:
I was about to buy a pair of these – amazing product and exactly what I need – when I read this on your site: “Manufactured locally in partnership with a Missouri Sheltered Workshop.”
Does that mean the people who make these aren’t paid minimum wage for their work? I can’t buy these if the people making them are being exploited. What are the conditions in this sheltered workshop? Is it like the Salvation Army sheltered workshops where people work all day for just a few dollars?
I need to know what my money would be supporting if I bought a set of these. They are so awesome, but I can’t commit until I know.
The business owner got back to me quickly and, of course, defended the company’s choice of sheltered workshop labor:
We are very proud to be utilizing the services of a local Sheltered Workshop, which by definition means “a private non-profit, state, or local government institution that provides employment opportunities for individuals who are developmentally, physically, or mentally impaired, to prepare for gainful work in the general economy.” How effective these institutions are has been a long debate but one must look at it on a more personal level to see the value….what if I were mentally challenged, or my child, to where I could not hold a job in the ‘normal’ workplace? I know I would certainly appreciate the opportunity to be made to feel productive, earning a paycheck would be a bonus;)It is a very nice facility located just outside of Springfield Missouri. They conduct work studies every year to reevaluate the time it takes them to do all the things required to manufacture our product, sewing, cutting fabric, counting magnets, processing orders and creating the labels for shipping, then we are invoiced according to the guidelines set by the Department of Labor. You can rest assured you will be helping a good cause whenever you buy [our product].
So I wrote back:
Thank you for your prompt and courteous reply.I don’t have to imagine what it would be like to be disabled and unemployable. I am developmentally disabled and after years of struggle to try to keep a job and periods of homelessness due to being unable to support myself, I now live on social security disability. I am fortunate to be able to drive and I live in a minivan which I have made into a cozy home for myself and my cat. (Thus my interest in window screens.) It is the highest quality of living I have ever found on my fixed income.Vocational rehabilitation was unable to assist me in employment and several times I have been pushed toward a sheltered workshop as my “only option,” sometimes with hints that I would lose my disability payments which I rely on to survive if I did not show that I was willing to try to work by taking one of these very low paying jobs. With proper supports, I am employable, but the existence of sheltered workshops meant there were not programs available to support me in employment that pays minimum wage or higher.It is not about pride in feeling productive and the “bonus” of a very small paycheck (I could make more money selling my blood than working in a sheltered workshop and, for a time, I did sell my blood to make ends meet.) It is about government programs that bully people into working in places that are legally allowed to pay pennies for the labor — like the workshop that makes your products, I’m sure, based on the wording of your response. That cheap labor keeps your costs down and increases your profit margin so of course companies think sheltered workshops are a fine thing.Although sheltered workshops are promoted as transitional work, studies have shown that moving disabled people straight into supported employment has better outcomes: more workers are able to achieve and maintain supported employment in the long run when moved straight into it than when sheltered workshops are used as a stepping stone. Supported employment costs the state less, workers have higher pay, and workers are more successfully integrated into the community rather than segregated. The main reason sheltered workshops have not already been abolished is that companies who benefit from employing workers paid sub minimum wages have lobbied to keep the workshops in place, arguing that they are needed because “no one else will employ these people” (despite studies showing otherwise.)I can’t applaud American workers getting paid $1/hour. Disability activists have been lobbying to abolish sheltered workshops for years now and as much as I need window screens, I can’t abandon my strongly held political and ethical beliefs that the workers who make my screens be paid at least minimum wage for their time. I will continue to sleep with my windows rolled up while I look for something else to protect me from the mosquitoes up here in northwestern Missouri where I am currently camped.Thank you for your time and honesty.
You obviously know from first hand experience what would be the ideal alternative then, other than what our government has designed. We actually were trying to use the services of “professional seamstresses” but the job was too mundane or repetitive, so we went through one after another, after another. We were thinking we might need to look at China for production, as much as we did NOT want to promote their welfare, when someone suggested we look into the Sheltered Workshops to see if they might be interested in the tasks needed to produce [our product.] We felt it was a win win, keeping the dollars here, keeping them in our own state, and helping the disabled. I wish you well in your travels and hope you find a solution that will work for your needs.