What’s all this about sub-minimum wage?

In recent years there has been a push to end sub-minimum wage jobs.  I totally agree that people should be paid a fair wage regardless if one has a disability or not.  If the person is able to do the job – with our without supports – that person should be paid at least minimum wage.  No argument from me at all on this point.

But, there is also another side of the story that is not heard (or ignored) with regards to employment and those with profound and complex multiple disabilities.  This population is often the population that if employed, is employed at a “sub-minimum”  or commensurate wage based on productivity at the job.

What is also often missed in this issue is that fact that a job is much more than a paycheck and for a specific segment of our population, this job, even though it pays sub-minimum wage, is much more than a job and money to the people who are actually involved.  We cannot lose sight of this fact in the quest “to do the right thing” without understanding the whole situation.  Most of these people do receive public benefits already due to the fact that the majority have some sort of intellectual and developmental disability.  The wages they earn are not what they live on for food and rent – although every little bit helps because what they receive from public benefits is clearly at poverty level.

Recently, Liz Plank, a video blogger and journalist,  recently posted a video titled “Divided States of Minimum Wage”   This is a great story about Collette and how she has started her own cookie business and hires other people with disabilities to work in her shop. This is a great story and one of wonderful accomplishment.

It’s a very complex issue though and it does not help that people such as Sarah Launderville,  the Executive Director of the Vermont Center for Independent Living.  Unfortunately, Ms. Launderville misinterprets the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA – DOL)  law and goes on to say that people get paid based on what percentage of disability the person has and goes on to say “so you’re saying you’re half a person.”

There is a public Facebook group called Disability Visibility Project

Disability Visibiilty Project - Facebook

I posted my concerns regarding this video on the DVP site and was lambasted by others.  My comments were major triggers for many people on that site and I was since blocked from the site.  While I eventually self-identified as being disabled myself (I am and have even lost a job due to asking for an ADA accommodation) I was repeatedly called out as an ableist and other nasty terms.  Even when I asked one person to read what I wrote before swearing at me and making judgments this is the comment I received:
ableist shit comment

Once labeled – there is no opportunity to clarify since every comment is twisted and misinterpreted.   I followed the commenting guidelines more closely than most of those who swore and labeled me – but since I was reported to the moderator, I was blocked from the site (as were a couple of other people who spoke some truth).  If you are interested in reading the comments, here is a link to a PDF (DVP Banned Facebook Comments March 2 2018the of the post or you can go to the Facebook page of Disability Visibility Project and read/comment there.


I have made efforts to clarify issues regarding the certificates and advocating for people who chose to work in these types of employment settings.  I have attempted to illustrate various types of obstacles that would be difficult to overcome, even with appropriate supports, for many of these same people to work in an integrated employment setting.    It’s not as simple as just paying someone minimum wage when one needs intensive supports.  There are issues of transportation, funding and training for job coach who needs to be there at all times and issues with personal care assistance (typically job coaches are not able to help with personal care giving) just to start the list.

Another huge issue is the fact that in supported employment for people with intensive support needs, the work hours usually top out at 10 hours a week.  Vermont has an average of 8 hours a week and New Hampshire has an average of 11 hours per week.  So even though the person earns minimum wage the income earned is minimal.

This then creates another major issue – if the person is now only working 8-11 hours a week, what is that person going to do the rest of the day?  While working in a “sheltered workshop” people may receive their physical therapy on site, make and eat their meals, have personal caregivers and peers on site.  There are many opportunities to engage with others and be out in the community.  When work hours are drastically cut, many people have nothing to do but sit home alone.

How do we progress and move forward?  I’ll keep advocating for my son and others and I’m sure I’ll be called more names and blocked from other sites too  – but hopefully, someone will read it and understand and help to advocate for those who are not able to advocate for themselves.


Magical Thinking

Reading the news today that Alaska has banned sub-minimum wage and the kudos of the Seattle Commission for People with Disabilities about this makes me think that these folks have magical or wishful thinking.  The illogicality of these decisions would be amusing if they were not so devastating for people and so consequently, I get very angry rather than laugh.

Robert Dinerstein, a law professor at American University and director of the school’s Disability Rights Law Clinic is quoted as saying “One approach has been to give workers a job coach, who goes to work with them during their first month on the job and helps them learn the ropes.”  I’m curious what will happen to those who need to have 1:1 support in order to be employed – do they just get to work for that one month and then lose their job?

Clearly Dinerstein has no clue about the level of supports that many who do work in sheltered workshop or those who work under a sub-minimum wage certificate need.

I have been at odds with the Seattle Commission for People with Disabilities over their recommendation that the sub-minimum wage be banned in Seattle.  I asked several times to see the research that they claimed they did regarding sub-minimum wage and finally I was given their “research” – some reports and a couple of letters – non that were specific to the issues in Seattle.  In fact, the information in the reports was very clear that in undertaking the elimination of sub-minimum wage there needs to be a transition plan in place and the transition needs to take place over several years, maybe 10 or more in some instances.    It is embarrassing as a citizen of this city that such major decisions can be made without evidence based research and opportunities for those affected to provide their input.  What happened to “Person Centered Planning” and “Nothing about us, without us?”  It appears they don’t matter to the Seattle Commission for People with Disabilities.

There are multiple reports and research with evidence based practices that can help to make a transition from sheltered workshop or sub-minimum wage to supported employment for those who chose this.  This option is not for everyone and can be very expensive and requires collaboration with many involved entities.

New Hampshire seems to be doing quite a bit of research and work to improve supported employment for residents.  There was a comprehensive plan on evidence based supported employment and a new, transparent data collection process.  There are reports issued every 6 months – this is the report for December 2016

NH employment data July 1 2016 through Dec 31 2016

Researchers from George Washington University did a case study of the transition from sheltered workshops to integrated employment in Maine.  To more fully understand the needed supports and the experiences of those involved, this report is very informative and does highlight the fact that when people leave the sheltered workshop, many work fewer hours per week and make less money than if they remained in the sheltered workshop.

Transitions - Sheltered Workshops

I do not support closure of sheltered workshops nor elimination of sub-minimum wage jobs that are allowed under the 14c certificates.  In addition to providing job support, working in a sheltered workshop can provide much more to the employee to enhance their quality of life and provide meaningful opportunities than many would be able to experience in an integrated supported employment setting.

We need to protect choice and opportunities together with person centered planning.




I worked in a sheltered workshop

For the past 3 years I worked in what was essentially a “sheltered workshop.”

I had worked for this large Medical Center for over 20 years when I developed a disability due to being a long-term caregiver to my son with intense support needs.  I requested an ADA accommodation which was very reasonable and actually would have been beneficial to the unit I had worked on – but the management had changed and this particular manager did not appreciate nurses who questioned anything – so consequently, the ADA accommodation that I requested ( to work 8 hours shifts, any day of the week, between the hours of 7AM and 11PM) was found to be unreasonable.  I essentially lost my job on the unit which I loved.

After being put on unpaid leave against my wishes and filing a grievance, the only job that this huge medical center could offer a skilled, committed nurse with compassion for patient care, was a position in pre-op surgery  – this job is the lowest of the low for nurses – a place where those who can’t do their jobs are sent  –   yet is supposed to be the final safety check for patients prior to going into surgery.  I saw the job just as that and became aware of many errors and issues that needed to be corrected – but rather than being thanked or appreciated for trying to improve issues with patient care and safety, I was continually reprimanded.  One manager told me that “this is like Swiss cheese, some things just slip through the holes”  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing!

This job was in the basement of the hospital – 3 floors below the ground – no windows and smelled musty.  Countless days passed with no breaks and time was wasted trying to get the slow elevator to ground level which meant that the 30 minute lunch break was only 20 minutes or less.  My colleague and I were treated as people without brains – only people who were supposed to do one task over and over again (start IV’s in surgery patients) without thought to what was going on with the patients.  We were to act as robots without brains.  We were to ignore issues that were of concern to patient safety because our job was only to start the IV.  If there was a difficult patient or some issues that caused a delay, we were reprimanded for holding up the “flow” of the department.  What ever went wrong or slowed the process, was blamed on us.

I was called into the manager’s office many times to be reprimanded for looking up things on the computer.  I told the managers that I would look up things I didn’t know, medications I was unfamiliar with, conditions on the patient’s history and physical that I needed to know more about or education on nursing issues.  I was told that I was not allowed to educate myself on company time – that wasn’t part of my job description.

No wonder I began to hate my job and hate going to work.  I had never experienced such job dissatisfaction in my over 25 years of being a nurse.  I was essentially being paid to not think and to not be a nurse.  I felt like I had a master watching every move and if I didn’t stay on task a huge whip would come down on my shoulders and I lived in constant fear of being fired for trying to give quality patient care.

As I was talking to a friend about my new job and how happy I am in it describing my day, my friend said “it’s normal but you were treated like a slave for the past 3 years so what is typical and professional for others seems odd to you coming from your old job.”  It then dawned on me that I had really experienced what many say a sheltered work shop is – working in sub-standard conditions, doing the same task over and over and over with no ability for advancement or progress.  One difference though is that I was paid well for my job – but then money isn’t everything.

I have to say though that “sheltered workshops” are not all like what many believe they are.  They are not assembly line jobs with the person doing the same task hour after hour and day after day with no opportunities to try new things or to experience pride in their work or to earn good wages.  Many operate as supported employment – developing the skills that each individual shows potential in.

I know my experience is very different than that of people who have ID and do not have appropriate or adequate supports or have choice in what they may or may not do or where they may choose to work but it did give a glimpse into the process of pushing people down into holes where they do not fit and not allowing them to learn, grow and contribute and be a productive part of the team.


How to Provide for Community Integration

Supported employment is becoming the only program that will be available for people with intellectual disabilities after the age of 21.  This program is replacing the sheltered workshops and in so doing is eliminating a very important part of many people’s lives. Please do not misunderstand the issue that I am trying to convey – read the story before making comments.

While supported employment is also a needed and critical program, it does not best serve the needs of many of our loved ones – particularly those with a dual diagnosis of Intellectual disability and mental illness of mania, psychosis or schizophrenia.  The population with a dual diagnosis is in need of a program which provides a stable setting every day of the week for several hours.  They do not do well in settings in which they only have support a few hours a week and then are left to their own devices to manage the rest of their time.

As a parent of one of these people with a dual diagnosis, I know that the supported employment program will not be the program that serves his needs.  There are so many opportunities to include him in community activities in other programs but if all the funds are used in the supported employment programs, there will be nothing left for those who need another type of program to function optimally.

I was recently at a local meeting area which has several eateries which serve a commons.  I witnessed a young man who was being supported by a “coach” in his job.  He clearly had no interest in the job, was spinning around, looking at the ceiling, while the coach would take a tea bag, put it in his hand and then he would drop it in the correct bin.  The coach was attempting much hand-over-hand work with him but it really was her doing the work.  She then picked up the bin of dirty dishes; put it on the push cart and then they both pushed the cart out of the commons.

This scenario made me feel really sad.  If a person has only so much support to enable them to be out in the community and experience life, I would much rather have my son experiencing opportunities that he enjoys and which get him out with people in a more natural way.  These activities are going grocery shopping, going to the library, going to a restaurant, walking to the park, going to church – these are all normal activities which he greatly enjoys and interacts with all types of people.  These are activities which he needs a 1:1 support person to help him.

Other activities that my son greatly enjoys are meeting with people and being in groups.  This is what the “sheltered workshop” provides for him.  No, he doesn’t do much work there and it’s not training him for a future job but it does provide stability, group activities which he craves, interaction with people, and structure to his day.  These are all critical components to his care which will be gone if the sheltered workshop is closed.  The sheltered workshop is not a sweat shop nor is it slave labor.  He does learn skills and is capable of some work with 1:1 support at all times. He gets paid for the piece work that he is able to accomplish but that is definitely not his motivation since he does not understand the economics of having a job and supporting himself.

If my son was only allowed 5 hours a week of a support person, it would be much more beneficial to him to use that for activities which he enjoys and activities which he chooses rather than a type of “employment” that means nothing to him and is only there to make others feel good that they are accomplishing something.  This type of “employment” would be torture for my son.

My son and many like him are not going to be cured and will not be “getting better”.  Yes, they are able to learn but will always need a high level of support.  They are not people who can be taught a skill and then be sent off independently to do that skill.  Even when they know how to do something, they need the constant support to maintain focus and follow through.

People like my son are very much like people with Alzheimer’s disease.  A similar condition is dementia.  Dementia, which my son has, is a brain disorder which obstructs and diminishes cognitive performance such as memory, judgment, personality and social function.  We need to be realistic in the choices that we make with services.

Sheltered Workshops or Supported Employment – Different Roads for Different Folks

Today there was an article published in Disability Scoop regarding Sheltered Workshops.   This information in this is hardly new yet I do find some interesting concepts that have come out of this.  I have also finally realized what one of the issues may be – is a sheltered workshop considered a route to supported employment with a competitive wage or is the sheltered workshop looked at as a day program which has benefits of it’s own?

If a sheltered workshop is only seen as a learning ground for other employment, of course it is a failure in that light.  On the other hand, a sheltered workshop does serve a critical role in the care of some of our more complex and high needs citizens.

When looking at supported employment, many people are needing to choose between a few hours of supported employment a week with no other resources for the remaining hours or a sheltered workshop – a program that has structure for 30+ hours a week.  This is a horrilbe choice for many to have to make.  Why can’t there be supported employment for the hours that one is able to do that and also a day program – why does it have to be one or the other?

When a sheltered workshop is looked at as a day program it serves many purposes – engagement with others, time management, skill development, activity, community involvement – all critical issues. My son is one of those who greatly benefits from a sheltered employment.  I’m not saying these things to limit his growth – I’m speaking from the perspective of reality.  When a person requires constant 1:1 interaction to maintain focus and stay on task, has the emotional maturity of a two year old and does not have a desire to work, understand the concept of money or how to manage any life skills on their own – what type of supported employment would there be?  It is much more beneficial for him to be in a program that is consistent and has several hours every day in which he can participate.  He also does get paid for the work that he is able to accomplish but he is not even aware of that – he just loves being with people.

When people have to choose between a sheltered workshop or supported employment which really may not lead to a job at all, we are just adding to the ranks of the unemployed case load.

Getting back to the study though, the authors are making assumptions about why the outcomes are less than desirable thinking people need to “unlearn” what they learned in the sheltered workshop.  These studies are missing huge areas  – what about the support needs of the individuals?  Yes, they all have autism but we all know that there is a huge variation in how people are affected by autism.  The authors do state that the severity of a person’s behavior may play a role though.  That should have been at the very top of the study – without that information everything else is a moot point.


“Participating in sheltered workshops diminished the future outcomes achieved once individuals became competitively employed, perhaps because the skills and behaviors individuals learned in sheltered workshops had to be ‘unlearned’ in order for the workers to be successful in the community,” according to the research team that assessed the group with autism.

Other factors like the severity of an individual’s behavior challenges might also play a role, they said.

Supported Employment for people with Developmental/Intellectual Disabilities


I recently participated in a webinar regarding transforming sheltered workshop situations to supported employment.  While I wholly support meaningful employment for all people I had a hard time getting past the judgmental attitude and biases of the presenters of this webinar.

There was much good information regarding difficulties with change, fundraising and gaining support for projects but I do not think that the presenters fully understand some issues of the families and people with intellectual disabilities.

Sheltered workshops are not what these presenters say they are.  They are not warehouses in which people sit and do piece work all day long.  The sheltered workshops that I have seen are actually quite enjoyable and when I have asked the employees if they like they jobs, their faces light up with pride, they happily show me what they are working on and for those who can speak, they answer in words or phrases that indicate their enjoyment of their work experience.

The presenters talked about roadblocks that people have to change.  One that they mentioned was “what are the people going to do during the day?” Supported employment may only be a few hours a week.  If supported employment is going to replace sheltered workshops, one needs to think about what will happen in those other hours.  These presenters did not want to think about those hours since it was not their program and did not seem to realize that if a person is taken out of the sheltered workshop environment and placed into a supported employment situation there would be a huge void in these people’s lives.


As with behavior modification techniques one needs to have a replacement behavior in place prior to removing the “offending” behavior.  I would think that in this situation, one would need to have replacement activities in place prior to removing hours of structured time.  This major issue does not seem to be a concern for those who advocate for supported employment.

One often hears about people “volunteering” prior to having a paying job.  What one doesn’t hear is that volunteering for a person who needs 1:1 support is much different than a person without support needs volunteering.  If a person receives 20 hours a month of support – that support is used for either “volunteer” or employment.  It’s not as if the person who needs support can volunteer and fill their time up that way.

What I think that people are missing is that many of these people with high support needs also need support for recreational activities and all activities of daily living.  When support is taken away for a great majority of the time that they had support, who will step in and provide that support?  If there is only money to provide for 20 hours of supported employment/volunteer time a month, where is the support going to come from for the majority of hours outside of the employment/volunteer time?


Many of the people who are employed in sheltered workshops need 1:1 support for many activities of daily living.  Many also need frequent interpersonal interaction to keep them focused or on task.  Many also need the support of others to manage their time which includes helping with recreation and other aspects of life which are not “employment.”

Recently I also attended a workshop regarding transitioning to adulthood for people with intellectual disabilities.  The issue of employment came up and a counselor from the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) pointed out that when a person with an intellectual disability works they need to have opportunities outside of the job for social and recreational engagement.  This DVR counselor stated that many people with DD lose their jobs due to the fact that they have no other social outlets and start to use the job place for their recreation.

I’m afraid that with the limited hours that a person who has supported employment has with a “coach” puts great limits on the availability of supports for other aspects of the person’s life.  In a sheltered workshop situation, people are able to work in groups with support but do not necessarily need the 1:1 support which they would need in a supported employment situation.  Therefore, the funds for the support person can be spread out and shared with others.  This will enable more people to have employment and activities for more hours a week than if each person had their personal 1:1 supported employment “coach.”

The term “coach” is a little misleading also.  The people with intellectual disabilities who need this high level of support are not people who one would train to do a job, work with them for a set number of hours and then the employee will be trained and able to work independently.  These are people who will need 1:1 support for all hours of their employment for the length of time that they are employed.  This is a life-long disability and most of the people with this high of support need will always need this high of a support need.

I fully expect to hear from many who do not agree with my assessment of the situation.  I’d love to hear from you and hear how these issues that I raise can be overcome.

The issues of supported employment versus sheltered employment are very much like the issues of concern with a continuum of care.  We need to realize that the population of people with intellectual disabilities is heterogeneous.  We need to provide programs that benefit all – no matter what their abilities are.


 Below are some comments from people in the community:


As more residential centers close and DD centric programs are eliminated it is much easier for DSHS to deny services

The services our tax dollars buy must be used to meet the unique needs of individuals, not all of whom will find employment at Microsoft. Residential services, activity services, all services must fit the needs of individuals not the pipe dreams of DOJ lawyers and bureaucrats in DSHS and the county DD offices just keeping their paychecks, pensions, and power.

Since when are the consultants better at determining our kids futures than the parent/guardians and DSHS case managers, most of whom really do care

I’m right there with you, and having my son in a program that give me 3.5 hours a day for 5 days a week would be fantastic! He doesn’t care at all about getting paid, or about having some kind of employment that those well-intentioned folks you mentioned seem to prize so highly

DSHS has refused to let anyone else into the sheltered program for several years turning away a number of families.  A few KAT clients have found jobs, some moved out of the area and a couple have died.

The reimbursement is not the point, safety and having a purpose are more important

Most of the clients work about a 16 hours a week, 5 days 3.5 hours each day, each has a pathway to independent employment plan, realistic or not.  The Boeing contract provides almost as much as DSHS and allows every Kitsap Applied Technology employee to receive a paycheck each month based on a piece rate, our son’s pay isn’t much but it is better than sitting at home watching Muppet videos.

I am sick and tired of explaining these needs to the well intentioned, altruistic folks who have no special needs kids or have kids that are performing in top 10% of the DD population.