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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

This is but one of the many menial jobs contracted or subcontracted by area businesses to Quest Inc., a nonprofit company headquartered in Orlando that operates two adult day training centers in Central Florida. Every weekday, developmentally and intellectually disabled adults, ranging in age from their early twenties to late fifties, come to "learn job skills that can prepare them for the responsibilities they would face in an outside workplace." (The majority are admitted on a Medicaid waiver - a voucher to spend Medicaid money on non-medical expenses - paid directly to Quest by the state.) It's difficult to argue that washcloth folding is one of those skills, however - Disney does not employ people in-house for that task, and the most comparable job, towel folding, is performed by a machine.

Quest's stated aim is to "build communities where people with disabilities achieve their goals," but it describes itself differently when it tries to secure competitive contracts from area businesses. "We don't market it as: ‘Quest Inc. serves individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, blah, blah, blah,'" says Michelle Bellamy, vice president of QuestWorks, the subdivision of the company focused on employment. "The reality is, that's not something they want to know. If I'm applying for a lawn service contract, we say we provide lawn service."

Quest won't say how much of its $4,966,713 in revenue for QuestWorks last fiscal year came from contracts it employed its disabled clients to fulfill - the company is tight-lipped when it comes to numbers - but like other adult day training centers in the area, it's certain that Quest pays some of its clients below the state minimum wage. The organization holds a 14(c) certificate from the U.S. Department of Labor, which allows employers to pay "special minimum wages" to disabled workers based on their productivity, a provision that was added to the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1986. The justification used by both the feds and the operators of adult day training centers for paying subminimum wages to these workers is that it allows disabled people employment opportunities that would otherwise not be available to them in the competitive marketplace.

Each special minimum wage is particular to the individual and the task. Determining that individual's wage means quantifying his or her productivity, comparing that to an average able-bodied person's productivity and dividing one number by the other. If a disabled person is deemed to be half as productive, he or she gets paid half of the prevailing wage for that job; only one-tenth as productive, only one-tenth the prevailing wage, and so on.

For piece-rate jobs such as assembly and sorting, the determination is fairly easy. If the industry average is 300 washcloths folded per hour, and the prevailing wage for an able-bodied person doing that job is $7.50 per hour, then the piece rate is the prevailing wage divided by the production rate, which would be 2.5 cents per washcloth. (This is a theoretical example; Quest declined to disclose its actual piece rate for washcloth folding.)

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