Above the faint sound of a band drum circle in the next room, dozens of adults with intellectual disabilities worked quietly at long, colorful tables to fulfill a production contract with a local shaving oil company . Some filled bottles with oil, while others used a heat gun to seal the plastic wrap. One of them was deftly threading small packets of samples into brochures. A few roamed the tables to oversee the work.
All workers – verbal or non-verbal, blind or sighted – worked for piecework wages well below minimum wage, due to a 1938 law that provided exceptions for people with disabilities. National estimates put the average effective wage for these workers at just over $3.30 an hour.
But the fate of workshops like this — San Antonio’s Mission Road Developmental Center, one of the largest in the nation — is in question, as federal and state lawmakers have in recent years reduced exemptions under which employers can pay below the minimum wage.
A recent report by the US Civil Rights Commission argues that the exemption should be removed entirely because these “sheltered workshops”, as they are called, trap workers in “exploitative and discriminatory” employment schemes. And disability rights advocates say the program limits the potential of these special-needs workers.
Meanwhile, nonprofits like Mission Road and some families say eliminating these sheltered workshops would take away a much-needed option for the many adults who are happy to be there – especially those whose disabilities would be particularly difficult for general employment.
Some 2,500 workers in Texas earn below-minimum wages in these sheltered workshops, including nearly 400 in San Antonio.
stuck in the mud
James Meadours, president of the disability civil rights group Texas Advocates, said sheltered workshops tend to stifle opportunities for their workers.
“People get stuck in the mud there,” he said. “They think they can’t do anything else in the community. They don’t know what’s there.
Meadours, who has an intellectual disability, worked for seven years at a workshop in Oklahoma, where he watered plants for an effective wage of 50 cents an hour. It took him a year to afford a bus ticket to Colorado to visit his aunt and uncle, he said.
Meadours left the studio in 1990 and found himself free to make mistakes and learn from them. He accepted without question the first job offered to him, working in a cafeteria under a boss he described as disrespectful and not understanding his condition. He quit that job after a few months with no other work in sight, going another six months without a job. His next work, in a clothing store, earned him “five wonderful years” under a supportive boss. His salary above the minimum allowed him to leave his group home and find his own apartment.
Now living in San Antonio near the Blue Star complex, he recently celebrated his 30th year of living in his own home, a far cry from the group home he once lived in. “I’m very proud of it,” he said.
Meadours’ journey parallels an evolution in the way governments treat their citizens with disabilities. In 1990, the same year he left his studio, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law, landmark civil rights legislation that made people with disabilities a protected class. Dennis Borel, executive director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, said the 1938 law establishing underpayment belongs to an earlier, less enlightened era when governments thought the best approach was to isolate people with disabilities. intellectual disability, rather than providing individualized support.
“It was a time when it was still legal to discriminate based on a person’s disability,” he said.
His organization supported a successful 2019 bill in the Texas Legislature, drafted by State Senator Joan Huffman (R-Houston) and State Representative John Raney (R-College Station), which has eliminated the sub-minimum wage for state contractors.
The bill was consistent with efforts in other states, as well as federal action. Last week, the Biden administration announced commitments to eliminate the sub-minimum wage for workers with disabilities. The announcement follows an unsuccessful effort in Congress last year to repeal the 1938 law.
Mission Road says that attending its workshops is a matter of choice.
“Some of our clients couldn’t do minimum wage work,” said Lora Butler, executive director of the Mission Road Developmental Center. “That way they can get a paycheck and they can say they’re going to work. It gives them purpose and confidence.
Mission Road holds certifications for 224 workers to receive less than minimum wage at its shop, making it the second-largest such employer in Texas.
But the leaders of the organization do not see themselves as employers but rather as service providers, whose workshop is one of many programs offered to their clients alongside housing, daycare and life skills training. of life. The wages it pays workers are considered by the IRS to be “therapeutic compensation.”
Although salaries are paid by local business production contracts, the majority of the nonprofit’s $17 million in revenue in 2020 came of state funding for those programs, including the workshop, according to the nonprofit’s filings.
Butler calls the workshop a “first step to finding a job,” allowing their clients to experience a flexible, low-stress work environment. There are no production quotas, no discipline for absenteeism or tardiness, and no limits on work breaks.
The Texas Workforce Commission checks in with workers at least once a year — twice for young workers — to ask if they want help finding jobs in the wider community, which Mission Road also provides. support services. Butler said about two-thirds choose to stay in the sheltered workshop.
One worker, Gary Burrough, 50, has worked there for years, first entering Mission Road care aged 19. He once held a regular job, program directors say, but since then has chosen to work exclusively on the shop floor. “It’s the place I love the most,” he said. “All my friends are here.”
The system is not perfect. Recently, there has been a period where some workers have started on the shop floor without first being consulted by the Texas Workforce Commission about their employment options. In 2020, the Department of Labor ordered Mission Road to reimburse 27 workers a total of approximately $3,600 in back wages, retroactively applying the hourly minimum wage for that period.
An alternative for some
Endeavors Unlimited, like Mission Road, is a Texas-based nonprofit that employs workers with developmental disabilities. But it pays its workers wages between $13.50 and nearly $16 an hour depending on the job. And like Mission Road, it also provides housing, life skills training and employment support services.
“There must be a future beyond [the subminimum wage] it’s more integrated,” said Elique Guerra, Program Director of Endeavors Unlimited. “And to be integrated, you have to be competitive with wages.”
He said if it’s about instilling pride in these people and giving them a path to financial independence, only a competitive salary can do that.
The 40 or so workers it employs across Texas have various disabilities, but they compete for landscaping and custodial contracts with other private employers, to maintain and beautify hundreds of acres or to clean and disinfect large government buildings.
Far from being a liability, their unique team structure attracts loyal customers, said James Bower, regional manager, such as the systems that help its workers with time management.
The result is a loyal and consistent workforce, Bower said. “We show people day after day what people with disabilities can do.”
“I struggle with IDD every day,” Bower said, using a catch-all term that refers to intellectual and developmental disabilities. “That didn’t stop me from going to the highest possible point.”