The term 'supported employment services' means services that enable individuals with developmental disabilities to perform competitive work in integrated work settings, in the case of individuals with developmental disabilities—
- for whom competitive employment has been interrupted or intermittent as a result of significant disabilities; and
-who, because of the nature and severity of their disabilities, need intensive supported employment services or extended services in order to perform such work.
There is a national movement to employ more people with disabilities in competitive, integrated work settings where they can work side-by-side with non-disabled employees and make the same wages for the same work. This is a reasonable goal for most people with disabilities and a welcome change from an assumption that people with disabilities are unemployable in regular work settings. At the same time, there is a push to close facility-based work programs (sheltered workshops) that serve people with more severe disabilities. These specialized settings often offer other services and social opportunities that are not available elsewhere.
The Michigan Developmental Disabilities Council is considering supporting legislation that could eliminate the use of “subminimum wage certificates” that allow employers to pay people with disabilities less than minimum wage if the individual is not as productive as non-disabled workers doing the same job. These certificates are issued by the U.S. Department of Labor to provide incentives to employers to hire more people with disabilities.
In Michigan, most of the subminimum wage certificates go to sheltered workshops. Without the use of these certificates, it is likely that sheltered workshops would eventually be driven out of business. There are no suggestions that I know of from advocates who want to get rid of the subminimum wage that these be replaced with other incentives or subsidies to keep facility-based programs open. The elimination of subminimum wages is essentially another way to close sheltered workshops. The only option for employment for people with DD would be supported employment in competitive, integrated work settings, a scenario that is unlikely to work for people with more severe disabilities.
Evidence from Michigan and other states where sheltered workshops have closed do not support the idea that people with DD who need and want employment will be able to find jobs when the only option is supported employment. In some cases, unemployment among people with DD has increased and the percentage of people using supported employment services has decreased after sheltered workshops have closed.
Ottawa County, Michigan, is feeling the impact of closing a sheltered workshop. Kandu, a popular nonprofit organization that trained and hired adults with disabilities, cognitive impairments or other barriers to employment, ceased operations in August of 2015. Of the 681 people with developmental disabilities served by Ottawa County Community Mental Health, 170 worked at Kandu. 96% of those employed in sheltered workshops in Michigan worked more than 14 hours per week for an average wage of $2.50 per hour.
At meetings with the local Community Mental Health agency, it was agreed that integrated employment should be a priority, but families questioned whether this option was feasible for all, based on these factors:
- The availability and affordability of supports that enable a person to work
- Sufficient employers able and willing to create jobs and pay at least minimum wage
- The actual ability of a person to perform a job function
In 2008 a law went into effect to increase supported and integrated employment for people with disabilities. The law also phased out the use of sheltered workshops. The CHIMES Foundation and The George Washington University issued a report on the experience of people with significant disabilities who were employed by sheltered workshops as well as providers who formerly operated sheltered workshops in Maine.
The key findings in the report, "Transitions: A Case Study of the Conversion from Sheltered Workshops to Integrated Employment in Maine", included:
- People who had been employed in sheltered workshops have seen their hours worked per week decline. 2/3rds of those previously employed are no longer employed and those who are working earn less per week because of the reduction in the number of hours worked.
- In 2008, the year Maine Public Law Chapter 101 went into effect, 39.5% of people with disabilities were employed. That number dropped to 34.1% by 2012.
- Sheltered workshops in Maine were employing 558 people with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD) in 2001. There were no people employed in sheltered workshops in 2010. The number of people with IDD who were served in integrated employment in Maine also declined during the years from 2001 to 2014.
- Employment data for people with intellectual disabilities in Maine show an average of only 12 hours worked per week in 2011, the lowest in the nation.
- After the passage of the law, non-work placements increased dramatically from 550 to 3,178.
- Level of disability was one characteristic commonly cited as a factor impeding placements for some people who are no longer employed.
The Center for Health Care Strategies September 2012 Report (on page 17) includes experiences with “Employment First” in Washington State. This was part of an effort to “...focus all publicly-funded resources for persons with I/DD to finding and keeping paid employment in the real world as opposed to sheltered workshops or recreational activities like bowling or excursions to the mall. Although the state continues to fund support staff for sheltered workshops, it is phasing them out in favor of finding their clients jobs in places like Fred Meyer, Starbucks, and PETCO.”
According to the report:
- In 2008 Washington spent roughly $50 million on employment-related services for people with developmental disabilities. Some 3,700 beneficiaries currently hold paying jobs, but most of these individuals are relatively high-functioning; among those with more severe disorders, only 17 percent have found work (30percent in Seattle).[emphasis added] In part, this can be attributed to the recessionary job market when prospective employers can typically select from a surfeit of applicants, many of whom are overqualified for the position.
- At the same time, many families of adult children with I/DD are asking whether the state is going too far in believing that people who have difficulty communicating or using the bathroom will be able to find and keep a job. After repeated objections, the state softened its position somewhat and allows beneficiaries who have made no progress in finding employment after one year to be eligible for publicly-funded recreational activities instead.
The disability news website Disability Scoop featured a somewhat misleading article on closing sheltered workshops in Vermont, “A Bet On Inclusion Pays Off” by Chris Serres of the Star Tribune [Minnesota] on 12/16/15.
According to the article:
"In 2002, Vermont became the first state to stop funding sheltered workshops. The state also ended the practice, still common in other states, of using Medicaid to subsidize group homes for people with disabilities.
"Instead, the state sends money directly to clients with disabilities for services of their choosing, such as job coaching and transportation.
"Today, Vermont leads the nation in almost every measure of workplace inclusion. Vermonters with intellectual disabilities are twice as likely to find jobs in the community as their counterparts in other states. Nearly 40 percent work in the community alongside people without disabilities, compared with 13 percent in Minnesota, for example.
"The 'Vermont model' of supported employment has thrived. Within three years, 80 percent of the employees at the state’s last sheltered workshop had found paying jobs. It has the highest rate of community job placements for clients with developmental disabilities; in 2013, its rate was nearly six times the national average."
To be fair, the article also catalogs abuses in Vermont's sheltered workshop programs. It exposes a dark side of the provision of services to vulnerable people with disabilities when providers and state and local agencies are not held accountable for abuses that occur under their supervision.
A quick look at Vermont’s record on supported employment as reported in the "UCP [United Cerebral Palsy] Case for Inclusion 2015" tells a different story. The percentage of people with Intellectual and developmental disabilities (ID/DD) in supported employment has decreased since Vermont closed its sheltered workshops:
A graph tracking supported employment shows these figures:
Efforts to increase competitive employment for people with DD in integrated settings should not be expected to offset the need for specialized employment services based on the severity and nature of an individual's disability. "Robbing Peter to pay Paul" (or in this case, closing sheltered workshops to fund more supported employment), is never a good policy decision when it comes to people with needs as diverse as those with developmental disabilities.