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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

Individuals with the most severe disabilities - such as those who are wheelchair-bound and/or require "hand over hand" assistance - bring in the paltriest checks on piece-rate jobs. When Czopek is asked what the smallest paycheck at SMA Behavioral Healthcare is, he says: "That's easy - pennies, hardly anything." But he adds: "You might [only] make enough money to go and buy a soda, but you're still going to have that money and a chance to work, because I'm not going to fire you."

For hourly jobs, on the other hand, the process of determining a "special minimum wage" requires an exacting and detailed "time study." For instance, to determine the wages for trash pickup at the Daytona Beach Flea & Farmers Market, staff from SMA Behavioral Health cordoned off a 50-by-100-foot area of the parking lot, timed a staff member cleaning up the bottles, cans and wrappers in that area, then emptied the bag on the same area, spread the trash accordingly and had a mentally disabled person clean up the same mess. The slowest of the eight people who took that time study currently earns $3.68 per hour, which means that person took about twice as long to clean up the trash, since the prevailing wage for that position is $7.38 per hour.

To adult day training centers, the time and effort spent getting permission to pay special minimum wages is not just a matter of savings, but survival. "I would love to pay everybody a lot more, but you can't put yourself out of business," says Jim King, executive director of the Arc of Volusia. "If Polly only chooses to work a little bit … and I paid her, let's say $7.25 an hour, and she's only bringing in $3 a day [in piece work], the business would go under."

King also says the major advantage of working at an adult day training center is individually tailored supports such as mental health and behavioral services, general education and social outings. "It's just not people sitting here and doing tangs," King says. "It's a lot, lot more. We create an environment that empathizes with personal feelings, that motivates and problem solves their strengths and weaknesses.

"Your boss doesn't care about your fine motor skills. Your boss doesn't care about your knee joints or your physical pain. If you wanted to punch yourself in the head, I don't know how long you could keep your job. [But] we've created an environment where all those behaviors are OK," King says. "I don't think you get that at Taco Bell."

In 2007, an article was published in the Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation titled "Integrated employment or sheltered workshops: Preferences of adults with intellectual disabilities, their families and staff." The article detailed the results of a study conducted in "a Midwestern state" sampling 210 people with intellectual disabilities who attended sheltered workshops, 185 of their respective caregivers or family members and 224 staff members who knew the people with disabilities. When the latter two groups were asked if their loved ones or clients would prefer to work in a setting other than a sheltered workshop, only 38 percent of family members and 40 percent of staff said yes. When that same question was posed to the disabled themselves, however, 63 percent said yes.

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