Leslie Winkler stacks nozzle mechanisms for spray bottles in a box. Six per box, just so, over and over again. At other times she might be putting labels on bags of coffee. All day.
Winkler does this three days a week in a warehouse in an industrial park in eastern Independence.
Barb Winkler of Lee’s Summit is grateful that her 33-year-old daughter, who has Down syndrome, has a place to go and be productive, even if she earns only $1.85 an hour at the JobOne sheltered workshop.
“You want them to optimize their potential and do everything they’re capable of doing,” Winkler said of people with disabilities.
The question is whether this warehouse is the best way to do that.
The future of such places — sheltered workshops that pay subminimum wage to workers with various disabilities — is uncertain in light of a new Medicaid rule and a new law signed last month. Based on a 1999 Supreme Court decision, the two actions confirm the government’s commitment to integrate people with disabilities into the larger community as much as possible.
That’s a big federal finger pointed at sheltered workshops, which by definition isolate workers with disabilities.
The Civil Rights Division of the federal Department of Justice took Rhode Island to court and this spring secured a settlement that will overhaul that state’s sheltered workshops. Other states, including New York and Oregon, have chosen to phase out the workshops completely without waiting to be sued.
The dust has not settled on interpretations of the new Medicaid rule, said Matt Fletcher, the associate executive director of InterHab, a trade association of 45 service providers for people with disabilities in Kansas.
But that’s not stopping COF Training Services of Ottawa, Kan., from putting its sheltered workshop building up for sale. (It plans to continue to offer other services for disabled people.)
The new law aims to get youths with disabilities fresh out of high school into competitive jobs, earning at least minimum wage, rather than just routing them to a sheltered workshop and likely an adulthood outside a normal standard workplace.
It stirs anguish among many families of disabled people who fear a productive sanctuary might be lost.
Called the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, the new rules require states to spend at least 15 percent of the federal money they receive for vocational rehabilitation on steering young adults with disabilities toward more ordinary jobs.
In states such as Kansas that rely on Medicaid dollars to subsidize sheltered workshops, the rule now is that money should not be used on programs that segregate people with disabilities.
If the effort succeeds, eventually no one would work in sheltered workshops.
“It’s going to impact a lot of shops,” said Ryan Jones, an employee services coordinator at JobOne. “In the long run, it could actually close the doors.”
The National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency that advises the president and Congress, believes that no person with a disability should be discriminated against by being paid less than the minimum wage.
But the Missouri Association of Sheltered Workshop Managers says “workshop veterans and their family members realize that placing all workshop employees in private, competitive businesses is unrealistic.”
Not everyone with a disability can hold down a job in the open market.
“If people were able to have community employment, they would be community employed,” said Barb Winkler. “It’s a little disturbing that we build programs for people with developmental disabilities and then we come along and dismantle them and try something else for a while.”
Winkler is on the board of a Jackson County agency that serves the disabled, but she does not speak for the organization.
JobOne in Independence employs 73 people, many of whom came there directly after high school. Jones said a lot of the employees could be successful in the open job market, but most could not. They each receive an annual review that assesses whether they could try the transition.
The outside world is not always inviting. Jones cited a JobOne employee who got a job at an Independence fast-food restaurant only to be let go when management changed. He came back to the sheltered workshop.
Sara Muleski of Kansas City, who has autism and a seizure disorder, went to work at a JobOne shelter in Grandview right after high school. Now 24, she sorts pill bottles and is bored. She would like a job outside the shelter, perhaps working with animals.
Her mother, Liz Muleski, thinks she could handle something more challenging and is generally supportive of the new push away from sheltered workshops.
“But for some people, I feel a workshop is the best place for them to maybe gain some work skills,” Liz Muleski said. “Sara was so naive and and so susceptible to someone taking advantage of her right out of high school.”
About 450,000 people nationwide work in sheltered workshops or participate in segregated day programs. About 60 sheltered workshops operate in Kansas, employing about 5,000 people. About 90 workshops in Missouri employ roughly about 7,500 people. Nearly 800 people work in five sheltered workshops in Jackson County. Three workshops in the county have closed in recent years.
The point of the law is “to abolish the low expectations that have kept people with disabilities out of their communities for decades,” Jocelyn Samuels, an acting assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division, said in April in announcing the push.
But many parents and guardians people with disabilities fear that without sheltered workshops, their loved ones will languish. They will have nothing to do and fewer social interactions.
“There’s kind of a generational battle going on right now,” said Jake Jacobs, the executive director of Eitas, Developmental Disability Services of Jackson County. “Most of the workshops were started in the 1960s and ’70s and parents were looking for some opportunity for their children to be out of the home and maybe earn a little money.
“They may not want any change, but you’ve got a lot of kids graduating high school who have been mainstreamed,” Jacobs said. “They don’t want a segregated environment at all, and their parents don’t want that. It’s difficult trying to serve both populations.”
Another threat to sheltered workshops is the increasing scarcity of jobs, especially the simplest ones.
“Everything is automated now,” said Mica Plummer, the director of a sheltered workshop in Monett folo in southwest Missouri. “Everything that workshops used to do, machines do it. Or our contracts go to Mexico, and it gets done for nothing.”
Plummer said the goal of sheltered employment is to help the employee. She’s all for that — if the worker can cut it in an unsheltered workplace.
“But if they can’t make it, a workshop needs to be here for them,” she said. “I don’t know if you know how cruel the public is.”
Critics point to Vermont. Six years after sheltered workshops were eliminated there, just 36 percent of the people formerly employed in them had found jobs in the open market. Those that did averaged just 10 hours a week.
“Everyone would love to pursue more community-based employment, but the resources are simply not there to hire, train and retain job coaches,” said Fletcher.
The new Medicaid rule and the new law provide for exceptions and flexibility, but the point clearly is to get people with disabilities out of suburban warehouses and into the flow of community life.
“The intentions of people looking after the needs of the disabled population are good,” Barb Winkler said. “But the nuts-and-bolts effect of what (the new rules) are going to do is not positive.”