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Our Sheltered Workshop

July 10, 2014

Currently in the world of developmental disabilities there is tremendous controversy surrounding the topic of sheltered workshops. We fully understand the debate regarding everything from pay scale to the perceived segregation of people with intellectual challenges. These are issues that many people have strong convictions about, and we respect those points of view. In this post we are not attempting to offer a defense for all workshops, it is simply to state why we are successful and what we offer to people who choose to work with us instead of in the community.

We are a trusted business providing a variety of services to more than 3,000 customers statewide, but far more importantly we are fulfilling our mission to serve a population that is too often overlooked or ignored as possible employees. We compete in the commercial market with companies that have completely different objectives. Whether it’s a fast food chain or a giant retailer, practically every community job is designed for one single thing; profit. Typically those who work the fastest and are the most productive are the ones who are hired. They are employed because they can have a positive effect of the bottom line. If an employee begins to falter they are immediately replaced without regard to their well being. If their usefulness is in doubt they are immediately terminated.

For much of the business world it is a dog eat dog mentality. But within that reality we have chosen a different path. Our workshop exists for a completely different reason; to provide safe and meaningful employment to human beings who otherwise have diminished prospects for being hired. We do not employ our workers to make our organization the maximum amount of profit possible - but rather we exist to serve their employment needs. How productive they may or may not be is not the consideration. Our focus is on how we can assist those who have the desire to work and who deserve to work.

But we also have to be fiscally responsible. Because of policy issues and oversight concerning DOL, SSI, Medicaid, etc. we are governed and watched more closely than our commercial counterparts. We also have a much higher overhead than most small businesses. Our performance is actually measured by how many people we employ. These factors make it extremely challenging to be efficient - but we make it work.

We compete in the marketplace with a workforce that we are proud to serve and with a business philosophy that chooses compassion for people over profit. For more than 30 years we have been successful because our bottom line is about empowering the individual. It’s about equipping them with the vocational tools they will need to be successful should they decide to work in the community while at the same time providing steady long-term meaningful work for those who choose to remain employed in a supportive setting.

Sometimes our employees are able to leave the workshop and, by utilizing the training we’ve provided, transition to a job in the community. When this happens we feel successful. It is very satisfying to think that we played a part in assisting someone in getting a job they wanted. It is always our goal for individuals to move into the community if they can find employment, and we do everything we possibly can to prepare them. But leaving our workshop for that type of job is their choice.

Unfortunately, at this point in our social history, many of the people we employ still have significant difficulty finding meaningful jobs outside the workshop. The reality is that the unemployment rate for people with developmental disabilities is heartbreakingly high. While great strides have been made integrating people with intellectual challenges into mainstream society, when it comes to hiring them there appears to be a point that some employers are reluctant to go beyond.

That is why we must advocate, educate and do everything in our power to raise awareness about the untapped potential of men and women with developmental disabilities who can benefit almost any business in ways that employers can’t even imagine. We must all stand united in our belief that every person has the right to be employed. If you are familiar with this blog or follow us on twitter you know that we constantly stress the need for complete inclusion in all aspects of society and that certainly includes employment. We welcome the day when individuals with intellectual challenges are automatically considered for jobs by all types of businesses and organizations.

But as we’re making this fight it does not make any sense to destroy the safety net of opportunity that a workshop like ours can provide.

Unfortunately, offering a safe and supportive environment within a workshop setting is automatically perceived by some as a form of segregation that prevents workers from interacting with people who do not have disabilities. However, that is not true in our case. On any given day approximately 20% of our workers go out on our company trucks and work in the community. For those that remain in our facility they have the opportunity to interact with customers. Our employees are not isolated. They are not marginalized.

We are incredibly proud of the people we employ, and customers constantly tell us that they are one of the main reasons they choose to do business with us. The interaction between our workers and the public is a joy to witness. The customer gains an understanding of what a person with a developmental disability can achieve, and our workers receive appreciation from the public for their efforts to perform their jobs. Our customers believe in our mission, and they get to see first hand what our employees are accomplishing.

Certainly there are many good jobs in the community that can be filled by individuals with developmental disabilities, and we want to help place as many people in them as we possibly can. In these positions they get to interact frequently with the general public and with coworkers who do not have disabilities. Often they work in a comfortable and safe setting and they are treated with respect as equals. But there are also many jobs where the person spends the day cleaning toilets alone, mowing grass alone, washing dishes alone or doing laundry alone. There is little contact with the public and only occasional interaction with coworkers on breaks and at lunch. In these situations, inclusion in the community does not necessarily make their work experience better.

When a person with a developmental disability comes to work for us we offer them vocational training on as many different job tasks as possible. They gain valuable experience in what it means to be a full time employee. We provide the safest possible environment both physically and emotionally. We create an atmosphere of trust between the workers and staff. Each person is appreciated for who they are - not for what they can do. Their worth as a human being is not determined by their productivity. Our complete acceptance of each individual has nothing to do with their job skills and everything to do with their humanity. Our workers are more than just employees - they are the very reason our organization exists.

Another issue that is raised concerning sheltered workshops is how the employees are paid. I cannot speak for other facilities, but in our case we do not pay piece rate which can lead to grossly unfair wages. We perform time studies on center based work that takes place in our building. However, unlike many other workshops we have a base hourly wage that no one is allowed to fall below. We are not required to do this - we simply feel we have a moral obligation to pay each person to the best of our ability. Paying at this particular level allows us to employ the most people possible. This is critically important since we usually have a waiting list to join our organization. Individuals and families regularly inquire about employment opportunities with our workshop because there is an intense need and desire within the community to be a part of what we are doing.

Of course the argument can be made that the people we employ should be paid more. But when you have a specific amount of funds available to spend in a fiscal year on wages and you raise the base salary, that money has to come from somewhere. We are a non profit. The only place to cut so that more money would be available would be through the downsizing of our work force, and that is something we refuse to do. That defeats the very purpose of our mission which is to provide safe employment for as many adults with intellectual challenges as possible. We simply are not willing to terminate the jobs of some of the most vulnerable people in society - the very people that we have chosen to serve.

It would be a nightmare scenario if we were forced to look into the faces of innocent human beings, including individuals who had given years of their lives in service to our organization, and tell them that they were losing their jobs so that their salaries could be used to raise the wages of others. That would be catastrophic for everyone involved. It would be a heartbreaking example of short sightedness filled with cruel irony because we would be ending the employment of the very individuals who need us most.

That is why passing restrictive legislation that damages all workshops does not make sense. Where will the thousands of individuals currently employed in them go? What will they do? How will they learn new job skills? How will they earn money? How will they be productive in a way that is fulfilling to them? When the unemployment rate for those with developmental disabilities is already so tragically high how can we expect them to be successfully absorbed into the workforce?

While it would be true that our remaining employees would now be making a higher wage, it would come at a terrible cost. I certainly believe that if the workers in our facility were allowed to vote on whether or not they would like to see their friends lose their jobs so that they could personally make more money not a single individual would be in favor of it. That is because they care about each other, they look out for each other, and they support each other. They want everyone to be included in the vocational experience because our workshop is not a cold sterile institution where people come to a job five days a week just to earn a paycheck.

We are a family.

Each morning I post the day’s absences on a board outside my office, and immediately our workers want assurances that those individuals just have a cold or they are taking a vacation day or they have some type of appointment. They are always concerned that something more serious might have caused them to miss work. They care about each other and the staff in a way that does not happen in a job at a fast food restaurant. They look out for each other in a way that does not happen at a giant retailer. What others view as a limited work situation is, in fact, a family environment where human beings care about each other in a much more profound, real and sincere way than happens in the outside business world.

For many people in society their job is simply a necessary inconvenience in life that pays the bills. It is something they endure instead of enjoy. Some spend every waking minute chasing a dollar. Others spend their lives searching for something bigger and better - but never finding it. Some avoid working whenever possible and some move from job to job with no sense of commitment or fulfillment. None of that is true for the men and women we employ. Their jobs mean everything to them. It is one of the most important aspects of their lives, and they rightfully take great pride in their vocational achievements and accomplishments.

That is why we are committed to providing full time employment based on respect for each individual rather than focusing on the bottom line. Each person’s job is adjusted to fit the abilities they currently have. We work around their personal issues so that they can maintain their dignity as they continue to be employed in a supportive and caring atmosphere. We do this because we embrace the right of every person to work. We believe in our employees which helps them to believe in themselves. We give them a sense of belonging, and we make sure they understand that they are a completely equal member of our team.

By offering a compassionate alternative to the harsh realities of the business world we provide our workers with the opportunity to excel. We create a working atmosphere that supports the individual instead of pressuring them. We provide a range of vocational opportunities so that a person is not locked into a single repetitive task day in and day out. The socialization that takes place is rarely found in other work settings. People make friends for life as they share the experience of meaningful full time employment.

The men and women who are employed by our workshop are here by choice. This is not a place where people are forced to come to or where they are relegated to. It is where they want to be. Of the 43 individuals that currently work with us, 30 have been employed here 10 years or more. We are privileged to share our daily lives with them. We learn together, we laugh together, we have fun together, and on those occasions when we suffer a loss, we grieve together. In the past several years two of our coworkers have passed away due to illness, and they have been missed in a profound way that would not have occurred in another job setting.

Unfortunately, it is currently fashionable to lump all workshops together to make one convenient target for condemnation. But in our particular case we sincerely believe those feelings are misdirected. That type of indignation would be far more useful if it was directed at the obscene 70% unemployment rate for people with developmental disabilities. The deplorable fact that 7 out of every 10 people with this diagnosis remains unemployed is exactly why a sheltered workshop like ours needs to continue to be available for those who would like to take advantage of it. To not be allowed to offer them this employment option guarantees that even more people with intellectual challenges will be unjustly left out of the job market. Those individuals will certainly suffer the consequences of having even fewer opportunities to find jobs which will in turn drive their unemployment numbers even higher.

For people with developmental disabilities, who in some cases have struggled for years to find a job, our sheltered workshop is a place of opportunity where each person is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.