Come down to our ice cream shop! Your patronage supports jobs for the people with disabilities who work here!
Hmmm. The idea of social enterprise is a wonderful concept. Having a business that incorporates diversity and funnels its profits into social causes, including supporting people with disabilities, has much potential. But here’s the problem. Agencies that are charged with getting people community employment are using the concept as a systems model to be replicated as a significant part of their solution to unemployment. This has turned into a bit of a sideshow.
Three years ago, I wrote a blog post that took a critical look at the growing trend in social enterprises as a solution by agencies for the unemployment of people with disabilities. I noted a number of major concerns with such approaches, and I used the term “engineered employment” to describe them.
After recently visiting a number of agencies that were in the process of converting their facility-based services to “community employment,” I have found nearly all of them have been struggling to enhance their job services. But what they are also spending a great deal of time, money, and resources doing is developing their agency-owned businesses – selling muffins, snacks, shredding, recycling, art studios, cafes, farms, ice cream shops, and so on. And then they tout these as community employment success stories. From my observations, it’s easy to see why agencies will prefer this path rather than direct job placement.
For example, "social enterprise" is an impressive cutting-edge term. It can be traced to European worker cooperatives in the early 90s that provided work for people with disabilities. It has a certain allure. Secondly, setting up a business can be an enjoyable and satisfying challenge, especially when you have a grant that will fund it. Third, it’s a nice thing to show off to families and visitors - there is a central location and it is easy to understand. Fourth, often the workers there are thrilled to be out of a workshop. And it can demonstrate the capacity of a worker with a disability in a community work setting.
But analyze this closer. What are the real outcomes and costs? And given the deplorable state of segregation and high unemployment of people with disabilities, is this where our focus should be?
While I think there is a place for social enterprise, I think there are real risks in human service agencies developing them. And here is why:
It is a formidable challenge to develop a quality job placement program. You need to do good hiring, quality training, develop career assessment practices, employer engagement strategies, and have effective job support strategies. From experience, I can tell you that this takes a lot of resources, work and a laser focus. But the payoff is huge. You can find well-matched jobs for high numbers of people with whatever job challenges they possess, once you have a flexible and competent system in place.
But if you are running a business, or worse, several businesses, where are your energies? They are diluted with maintaining and subsidizing one or several business models that are providing work that may or may not be of interest for a very small number of individuals. This is not to say that all micro-enterprises are to be avoided. Self-owned businesses are a reasonable job solution for the generally small numbers of individuals who have a passion for a particular business. But this must evolve from the individual, and not the agency thrusting it on the individual.
Non-profit human services, by necessity, must be lean and highly targeted to their mission. Service designs must add significant value and offer individualization to the people you serve, and not just add value to the reputation of the agency. Unfortunately, social enterprises rarely add enough direct value for the effort an employment services agency must put in. They also often require ongoing subsidies, using resources that should be going to job placement. And they offer "fixed job types" that are not grown from personal choice. Finally, the expertise of most human services management is not geared to business profitability, which social enterprises still require.
If you are running a business in your agency for the purpose of employing people with disabilities, consider these questions:
Ask yourself if your enterprise can be quickly spun off and survive on its own?
Ask if there are workers with a real passion for that work - not just those who were placed there and have come to be comfortable?
Ask what the costs will be per the number of individuals served?
Ask if this business is competing with other employers in the community - the very people you are seeking to act as a resource to?
Are there really insolvable obstacles such that the employees of that business cannot be employed elsewhere in the community
And if there are still good reasons to develop or maintain a social enterprise, are you willing to let the workers own the business, rather than the agency?
If one of your goals is to provide community employment, do not dilute your mission with an enterprise that will “engineer jobs” that haven’t grown out of personalized career assessment or discovery. Funders and policymakers need to stop funding these efforts with seed money that should go to job developers and employment consultants. Disability services have access to a relatively fixed pool of resources, folks. And 4 out of 5 people of working age with significant disabilities aren’t in community jobs. When you pull money away from your main mission, you better have some innovation in mind that will eventually produce job outcomes at least as good as customized job placement.
Right now, and I have looked closely at several, I cannot find any in social enterprise.
The continuing controversy regarding using sub-minimum wage for workers with disabilities (using special worker certificates under Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act) rages on. Use of this provision since 1938 has led to far too many examples of exploitation, artificially lowered wages, and poor employment outcomes. It needs to be phased out; review some of my previous postings on this issue.
Recent developments have cast new light on the issue and energized advocates trying to end the practice.
Last February, 2014, President Obama issued an Executive Order that raises to $10.10 the hourly minimum wage paid for work performed by parties who contract with the Federal Government, including workers with disabilities. According to the Order, raising the pay of low-wage workers increases their morale and the productivity and quality of their work, lowers turnover and its accompanying costs, and reduces supervisory costs.
Photo credit: APSE
Yet, at the same time, SourceAmerica, formerly known as NISH, as the agency responsible for distributing government contracts to non-profits, continues to routinely award such contracts to many non-profits that pay workers with disabilities less than minimum wage. Indeed, it has even lobbied against the phasing out of Section 14(c). This recently lead to a very public protest of SourceAmerica headquarters by a collaboration of national advocacy organizations, including APSE, the National Federation of the Blind, the National Council on Independent Living, ADAPT, Little People of America, and TASH.
Finally, bi-partisan support continues to grow for US House Bill H.R. 831, The Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act. Now with 96 co-sponsors (as of August, 2014), the bill would end issuing any new special wage certificates by the Department of Labor. It also phases out existing certificates, giving for-profits one year until their certificate is revoked; public entities have two years; and private non-profit vocational providers using sub-minimum wage will have 3 years to transition to integrated job placements at commensurate wages. At that time, Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act will also be repealed.
Over 2700 existing certificates are being used across the US currently. Predictably the outcry from most in reaction to the pending legislation has been dire predictions of layoffs, closures, and the spectra of people having nowhere to go or nothing to do. And while this could actually happen, it could only occur if those providers elect to do nothing about modernizing their services over the phaseout. In fact, there are many other agencies that exist that serve the same individuals with the same kinds of support needs, and do so without using sub-minimum wage. A good deal of evidence supports the ending of this antiquated practice.
It’s time to make US wage policy consistent and inclusive of all people, including workers with disabilities.
Over the last few years, the Employment First (EF) movement has taken off in nearly every state and several Canadian provinces. The clear intent of an EF movement is to make an individual, integrated, paid job the first option for individuals with disabilities receiving day services.
This is no easy task for a service system that relies on segregated facilities. The context is that only 21 to 23% of people served in day services are currently employed in the community. A good number of those individuals are in group employment settings such as enclaves and crews. Most individuals with disabilities of working age find themselves in sheltered workshops, or non-work community day programs.
In addition, there remains a steady reliance on sub-minimum wages in both sheltered workshop placements as well as in some supported employment services.
For EF to succeed, it must not only change expectations about individuals with disabilities and employment; it must fulfill those expectations with results. The devil is in defining what those outcomes should look like. Having now worked in numerous states and provinces struggling with implementing or beginning an EF approach to services, here are some priorities about what success should look like, and how to overcome some of the obstacles traditional services present:
1. Focus outcomes on growing the percentage served in integrated employment. Track it agency by agency publicly.
It is not enough to measure the number of new placements made since implementing EF. You also must expect a decline in facility-based workshops and non-work programs at the same time. Ultimately, systems change should be reflected in a greater ratio of people in individualized integrated work versus workshop/non-work programs. Citing greater numbers of placements has little meaning when the numbers served in the day system itself are growing, sometimes at a greater rate than the rate of increase in employment.
2. Reduce reliance on sub-minimum wage. Track it agency by agency publicly.
Using sub-minimum wage to solve productivity issues in employment is unnecessary and a shortcut that avoids using better job matching, accommodation, training and other support strategies. It also has been shown to open people up to exploitation, and causes a continuation of impoverishing already marginalized people.
3. Make sure transitioning students and those on wait lists focus on immediate job placement and support.
Letting young people and others enter an obsolete system that has caused a movement toward EF is unconscionable. In public policy, one should never needlessly inflate a system you are trying to devolve.
1. Stop using the workshop as a safety net.
Having people re-enter a facility perpetuates a continued reliance on segregated services during non-work or non-employment periods, when the focus should be on re-employment, community job skill training, career development or seeking greater hours.
2. Freeze refilling empty workshop “slots” due to job placements from the wait list, new referrals and school graduates.
Without ending workshop referrals, workshops will continue to segregate and serve individuals needlessly, despite clear evidence of poorer outcomes for the individual and lower cost-benefits to the taxpayer.
3. Stop replacing workshops with non-work day programs, perpetuating labor market exclusion.
When you define the problem as simply closing workshops, you end up with a lot of people volunteering, shopping or hanging out. This is neither the goal nor a solution to segregated employment.
EF has caused great fanfare in many places, and we have seen a number of pronouncements and proclamations. But will we see the system actually change its outcomes? Let me know what you are seeing in your part of the world. Let’s not be disappointed with the opportunity EF represents…