Workers in a sheltered workshop
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.
I wasn’t surprised that the business owner did not like my response. But she was very polite, much to her credit.
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.
As I pointed out to her, our government does not always have the best ideas or our highest interests in mind. I had gleaned her political stance from the way her business page was worded, so I turned to a voice I discerned she would trust enough to listen to: Ronald Reagan. “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
Once I reminded her that her own political stance is one that does not thoughtlessly trust the government but always looks toward the greater good, she seemed to be more receptive to my words. We ended the conversation on a high note, with her agreeing with my statement, which she called well-spoken: “If you want to help the disabled, support self-advocacy and integration in the community with supports. Don’t assume the government has the best interests of the most vulnerable members of the population at heart. It rarely does. The almighty dollar is king and justice is only served when it is expedient to commerce.”
The company still uses sheltered workshops, but hopefully I’ve given the owner something to think about. She was right: I do know the “ideal alternative” and it is expedient to commerce as well. What is holding us back from improving the labor situation for disabled people are misplaced emotions and feel-good legislation.
The ideal alternative to sheltered workshops is supported employment in the community. Supported employment costs the government less
and has a net benefit for consumers
. Supported employment is better for teaching work skills and endurance. Supported employment integrates disabled workers into the larger community rather than keeping them isolated away from the rest of society.
The business owner with whom I corresponded said that they offer people “the opportunity to be made to feel productive,” and that if she or her child were disabled, “earning a paycheck would be a bonus.”
The work I do — writing, presenting and also the craftwork I do, making jewelry and hats, the art I draw for t-shirts or book covers, the music I compose and record — is such satisfying work that I would still do it if no one else valued it enough to pay for it. In fact, it is work I did do without pay for several years before I began to see income from it. The fulfilling nature of the work and the joy of building my own business have sustained me through times of extremely sub-minimum wage income from it. But that has been my choice.
Vocational Rehabilitation has often been at a loss as to what to do with me. Or about me. Rarely for me. I have gotten the subtly threatening letters and phone calls that hope I will interpret them as commands rather than suggestions. I have experienced the efforts meant to herd me into a sheltered workshop, banking on me being so afraid of losing my disability benefits that I will hand my life over to someone else to do with as they will. I have faced the pressure to take an extremely low-paying job “cutting fabric and counting magnets” to mass-produce someone else’s design in a legal sweatshop. If I had a parent like the business owner with whom I communicated, I would have gotten pressure at home to yield to the coerced labor as well.
Think for a moment about the protests against companies like Nike. Sensitive, compassionate, progressive Americans decided it was unethical to purchase products made by people with so few options they were a captive workforce for the pennies per day wages they earned in the repetitive, mind-numbing work required to create designer shoe and clothes for people who paid thousands of times the labor cost in order to own elite brands.
But somehow all of that is okay when the people being exploited are disabled Americans instead of impoverished citizens of a developing nation. Worse, people in developing nations who work in sweatshops are often the wealthiest members of their society while disabled Americans who work in sheltered workshops are among the poorest in theirs. Even worse, sweatshop conditions at sheltered workshops are defended on the grounds that they are beneficial for the exploited workers, a sort of occupational therapy that will allegedly lead to higher self esteem and a sense of connection with a community one is not privileged to participate in beyond the exploitation one receives at its hands. How is this even still legal, let alone right?
This is not work that is so fulfilling one would continue to do it for free. This is not work that gives a sense of ownership. This is glorified minimum wage labor that is being paid at rates so far below minimum wage that undocumented migrant farm workers make more money per hour than many sheltered workshop participants. The thing I find most confusing about sheltered workshops is that there aren’t more people angry about how our system is treating some of the most vulnerable members of our society.
Supported work within the community teaches people how to get, keep, and flourish in jobs. Supported work within the community helps disabled people to be more active in and in touch with other people — all kinds of other people, not just other disabled people and the professionals employed to supervise them. And if the work is some of that boring, repetitive work that many of us do or have done but few people really enjoy, it’s okay because the worker is getting a fair wage (or as fair as wages ever get in America) and not being coerced into doing it for pennies because it is supposed to be good for them or a great place to learn.
And, by the way, sheltered workshops are not a great place to learn how work works. Over the last half decade or so, federal policy makers have been moving away from the sheltered workshop model (so why are there still so many sheltered workshops out there?!), largely for the simple reason that it does not work.
In a 2011 speech, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Samuel R. Bagenstos said, “when individuals with disabilities spend years— indeed, decades—in congregate programs doing so-called jobs like these, yet do not learn any real vocational skills, we should not lightly conclude that it is the disability that is the problem. Rather, the programs’ failure to teach any significant, job-market-relevant skills leaves their clients stuck. As a recent review of the literature concludes, ‘the ineffectiveness of sheltered workshops for helping individuals progress to competitive employment is well established.'”
Bagenstos works in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. He knows the score here. So why are so many communities and people still clinging to sheltered workshops? It’s time for a change.