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Bare minimum

Do sheltered workshops teach the disabled skills for the workplace or exploit them for cheap labor?

Photo: Steve Madden, License: N/A

Steve Madden

In a small warehouse tucked into a wooded area off of Jimmy Huger Circle in Daytona Beach, a couple dozen people work at what may be the last of America's manual-assembly jobs. Two wiry men pull stringy pieces of yellow nylon out of white cords that are destined for a buoy commissioned by the U.S. military. In the rear of the room, a bespectacled young woman sits at a table where she feeds a large spool of copper wire into a modified guillotine paper cutter and cuts the wire into 2-inch pieces that are later dipped in flux, soldered and used as electrical connectors by a utility company. Most of the workers in the warehouse, however, are assembling "tangs" - metal widgets slightly larger than a fingernail that serve as attachment points for the guy-wires that stabilize telephone poles.

This unusual post-industrial workshop is even more intriguing when you consider that all of the workers here have an intellectual or developmental disability of some sort, and for their five hours of daily labor, some will earn far less than $100 in their biweekly paychecks. That's because the state minimum wage of $7.31 per hour does not apply here; rather, workers are paid by the piece, such as 1.8 cents per tang or 5.7 cents per stripped buoy cord. Because of their disabilities, few of them work fast enough to pull in a wage remotely comparable to their able-bodied peers.

This workshop, administered and supervised by a nonprofit company called Arc of Volusia, is not an anomaly - not by a long shot. Just a half-mile down the road, at United Cerebral Palsy of East Central Florida, cafeteria workers make between $2.19 and $4.63 per hour preparing food for their disabled coworkers, who earn 6 cents for every label they affix to a caulking tube. Three miles to the south, at the SMA Behavioral Healthcare facility, individuals with schizophrenia can spend four hours a day checking labels on bottles of sunscreen destined for soldiers in Iraq, a task that, on a recent workday, earned the most productive of the laborers $2.97 per hour; the least productive averaged 38 cents hourly. On other days, the workers help assemble jumper cables for local police departments. Further inland, toward Orlando, people in various facilities shape dough into dog biscuits, package hot sauces, feed documents into paper shredders, box paper clips and do scores of other jobs for a fraction of the state minimum wage.

The practice of putting the disabled to work for "special minimum wages" is legal. It's considered a form of pre-vocational training, administered across the country through what are known as "adult day training centers." At these centers, disabled adults - generally those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, such as autism or cerebral palsy, or those who simply have an I.Q. lower than 69 - can spend anywhere from a few minutes to six hours per day performing repetitive, rote tasks in "sheltered workshops" such as the one on Jimmy Huger Circle. In these workshops, the disabled help their daytime caretakers fulfill contracts to provide labor for various businesses that need help doing simple things, like stuffing envelopes for mass mailings, packaging products to be sold in shopping malls or performing a vast array of manufacturing tasks. The contracts can range in value from a few hundred to nearly half a million dollars, and revenues from these contracts are usually used to cover operating costs of the adult day training center, any materials needed to perform the labor and, of course, the modest wages paid to the disabled workers.

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