Friday, September 5, 2014

Sub-Minimum Wage Battle Heating Up

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 At that time, Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act will also be repealed.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.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

How to Evaluate Employment First Policies

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:

Goals


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.

Overcoming Obstacles


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…

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Finally! A Civil Rights Breakthrough


 The following is a guest post by my colleague Bob Lawhead.
– Dale


On April 8, 2014 the U.S. Department of Justice announced “a landmark settlement agreement between the United States and the state of Rhode Island, vindicating the civil rights of approximately 3,250 individuals across the state with intellectual or developmental disabilities (I/DD).” This case constitutes the nation’s first statewide settlement involving the unnecessary segregation of people with disabilities in segregated sheltered workshops and day facilities, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  It is well known that these conditions exist in every state of the union and in the District of Columbia. 


Programs continue to segregate people, seemingly justifying the continuation of inaccessible publicly-funded recreation centers and programs.  Sheltered workshops and segregated day activity centers continue to keep people in perpetual slavery without the benefit that comes from a real job for real pay. These examples are most certainly “separate” but have never been “equal” to the public educational, recreational and employment programs currently in existence for the “typical” population.

According to the New York Times (Editorial, April 11, 2014) “Americans with intellectual and developmental disabilities historically have been shuttled far from society’s mainstream into segregated lives and workplace serfdom, earning wages as low as pennies per hour for the most repetitive and menial jobs. The Supreme Court in 1999 pronounced this kind of treatment a civil rights violation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but abuse and isolation from society have continued to this day. The need to end the economic servitude and social exile of people with disabilities has long been clear. The Providence agreement is a promising but overdue starting point.”

Change driven by a response to a Department of Justice civil rights complaint can cost a state much more than taking the initiative to develop an Employment First policy. Additionally, the individual states should want to avoid the burden of Rhode Island’s ten years of supervision by the Department of Justice. Public policy makers at the state level must move rapidly to proactively build integrated employment opportunities for their citizens with disabilities. According to the DOJ’s Ms. Samuels, “Unnecessary segregation of people with disabilities is harmful to people with disabilities and to our communities. We cannot wait another day to change. And we won’t.”

We must move forward to correct the injustice of state-sponsored segregation for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Professionals currently understand how to provide effective supports to people who desire employment. Research tells us that integrated employment options actually cost less than ongoing segregation during the day. Most importantly, people and their families are telling us in increasing numbers that they want to take their place in the regular workforce. It’s time, it’s right, let’s go for it!

Bob Lawhead serves as CEO of Community Link in Colorado. He is Public Policy Chair for the Colorado Association of People Supporting Employment First (CO-APSE) and Co-Chairs the National Association of People Supporting Employment First (APSE) Public Policy Committee. Bob also serves as the Colorado Project SEARCH Statewide Director, is a member of the TASH Employment Committee and is an advisor to Self-Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE) of Boulder County.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Thoughts on Group Service Models for People with Disabilities

groups
In my speaking and writing, I often tout the need for services to be individualized, and take issue with the congregate models we generally see from agencies and schools in the forms of group homes, day programs, and classrooms. Often, there is pushback from families and providers. I frequently hear:
- “What’s wrong with letting people socialize with each other?”
- “It’s their choice to be with each other.”
- “I’m [Jewish, Italian, African-American, etc.] and [live, work, play] with people with my same label.”

Good points, but these arguments miss the mark. They represent a kind of binary thinking (disability groups are bad/good) that is all too common. They oversimplify social grouping, which is a sophisticated sociological phenomena. Understanding how groups function is a key to successful individual community life as well as personal self-worth. 

Groups can provide important social cohesion. This can be very positive for when an individual wants to validate his or her social identity, or share experiences with people who have some commonality. For a repressed minority group, it can be particularly important. A person can establish self-identity and take pride in it. In-group members relate with others who have shared experiences and cultural expression. Group members can form a basis for friendship, and advocacy of the shared commonality. Indeed, many people who are deaf, or who have dwarfism, for example, express strong preferences about living among others with the same life situation for a variety of reasons. And peer support groups for persons with mental illness have been shown to be helpful for group members.

But the difference on making an educated decision to voluntarily join a group for social cohesion, support, or advocacy, versus having a group experience imposed on you is huge, especially in regards to individuals with disabilities. People benefit from having a range of social experiences and participating in groups defined by different gathering reasons, and then being able to make educated choices about how they want to experience their communities. 

There is also an important social perception issue related to disenfranchised groups in which the group members are subject to negative stereotypes. What happens is that when an individual is seen as part of a group, the group commonality becomes prominent and defining. This leads to sociological issues when the commonality is not particularly valued, including prejudice and bias, intergroup hostility, and discrimination.

Group definition plays out in the context of how providers organize services. If you have a certain “functioning level,” or a label such as autism, behavior problem, intellectual disability, etc., your service experience will likely be more defined by that characteristic, rather than by your personal life needs (job, home, etc.). While a "treating-the-problem approach" is common in a medical model, it produces a severely limiting life experience for someone with a disability. They become "boxed in" by perceived and potentially misunderstood disability and support needs in terms of employment, housing, recreation, and more. Not only that, but individuals with disabilities often find themselves surrounded by others with the same disability or "level of function," limiting access to others who might mentor, model, or perform at a higher level.

Fully understanding how to make good decisions about what groups to be a part of, in what context, and for how much of one’s life is a big decision people must make. Whom do I live with, what kind of work do I do, whom do I have fun with are major questions for us all. What professionals shouldn’t do, though, is track people into pre-made groups as answers to these questions based on their disability label. This ultimately limits the answers to those models that disability professionals have artificially created. 

So, consider the kinds of questions we ask:
  • It’s not: What disability work crew you want to join?; It’s: What kind of job do you prefer?
  • It’s not: What group home you want?; It’s: How do you want to live and with whom? 
  • It’s not: Do you want to go to the mall with other people from your residential placement?; It’s: What do you want to do for fun and with whom?
And remember, if all your previous experiences have been defined by group homes, workshops, crews and enclaves, and all your friendships have developed from group home co-residents placed by others, then saying your current situation is your "preference" is really not choosing at all. When someone understandably selects the only thing they have known, then we have failed to support him or her in understanding all the possibilities.