Report highlights rampant employment discrimination

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The National Disability Rights Network released a new report Jan. 18 calling for the end of subminimum wages and poor working conditions for people with disabilities.

The 60-page report, titled “Segregated and Exploited: The Failure of the Disability Service System to Provide Quality Work,” details the conditions nationwide at sheltered workshops, which are set up as “job training programs” to transfer people with disabilities into the workforce.

It found that people at these sheltered workshops often are just counting rocks and doing other mindless tasks, resulting in the continued segregation of individuals for decades. Though these workshops require certification, oversight is practically nonexistent. In 2009, the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division employed three individuals to review the 2,500 annual renewal applicants, as well as first time applicants.

“Sheltered workshops have replaced institutions in many states as the new warehousing system and are the new favored locations where people with disabilities are sent to occupy their days,” according to the report.

The vast majority of people in sheltered workshops are paid well less than minimum wage, which is legal under a Great Depression era law designed to bolster employment for people with disabilities. However, this exception is often exploited. In Iowa, for example, a turkey service is being investigated by the FBI for paying people with disabilities an average of $.41 an hour, compared to $9 to $12 for other individuals.

The report challenges the often used justification for subminimum wages: that people with disabilities are less productive and require expensive accommodation. It highlights a recent Government Accountability Office report showing that 70 percent of workplace accommodations cost less than $500, with 20 percent costing nothing.

The report argues that in many cases, people with disabilities shouldn’t be paid based on their productivity, but on their contributions to “help meet the unmet needs of the business.” At Walgreens, for example, about 40 percent of its workforce is people with disabilities. These individuals receive pay comparable and to their counterparts and are paired with them inside Walgreen’s stores. Productivity has increased since the addition of these accommodations.

“Ironically, a person with a disability would receive more individualized accommodations in a competitive work environment because of the protections set forth in the (Americans with Disabilities Act),” according to the report.

These sheltered workshops receive almost half their funding from federal, state and county agencies. The report recommends halting funding for sheltered workshops that pay subminimum wages and fail to work toward transferring people into the workforce. It also recommends additional tax incentives to spur employment opportunities and increase labor protection and enforcement.

A response from the American Congress of Community Supports and Employment Services can be read here.