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Sheltered workshops fading away

Colin Zgoda, a 21-year-old autistic student, will age out of high school this year. His post-high school plan was supposed to be like many other Western New Yorkers with developmental disabilities before him – landing a spot in one of the area’s 13 sheltered workshops. The facilities have been an alternative to working in the open labor market, offering a supported workplace with vocational training programs for adults with disabilities.

But in a move to create integrated workplaces, the state Office of People with Developmental Disabilities last summer put a moratorium on new admissions into sheltered workshops, pulling funding for new workers.

“We are all set to transition into sheltered workshops, now those doors have been closed,” said Denise Zgoda, Colin’s mother, “The plan right now is we don’t have a plan.”

Sheltered workshops, where individuals do contract work for local companies, employ 8,000 across the state. They had been the traditional vocational track for many local families for decades.

Numerous local businesses use sheltered workshops for assembling, collating products and other tasks. The costs to the companies are modest, plus they say they support the work of the sheltered workshops.

But the policy designed to channel disabled workers into the general workforce may be an example of the best intentions having unintended consequences. Area workshops are awaiting plans for how to proceed.

“This change is creating quite a bit of angst for families with individuals in high school and recently graduated,” said Rhonda Frederick, COO of People Inc., and president of Developmental Disabilities Alliance of Western New York.

Fueled by the Obama administration’s enforcement of the American’s with Disabilities Act and the Supreme Court’s 1999 Olmstead decision that prohibits segregation of people with disabilities, the state is phasing out sheltered workshops.

Families with loved ones with disabilities are suddenly in the lurch – uncertain about their next step. And the state is hustling to keep pace.

“In an effort to accomplish our goal to increase integrated employment opportunities for people with developmental disabilities, we have created a pre-employment service called Pathway to Employment which is designed to provide individuals with the skills to transition from a sheltered workshop setting into employment,” said Jennifer O’Sullivan, director of communications for the state Office of Persons with Developmental Disabilities, in an email.

The state’s plans include creating affirmative businesses, where sheltered workshops are converted into workplaces with disabled and non-disabled employees, working side by side. Additionally, this year’s state budget includes a tax incentive for employers who hire people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

Local sheltered workshop providers embrace the changes and philosophy of integrated workplaces but said the approach can’t be applied to everybody. They also said workers should have a choice of where they want to be employed.

“It could work for higher functioning individuals, but what about other individuals who need more support services?” said Michael Gross, executive director of Heritage Centers, which runs Allentown Industries, the area’s largest workshop with three sites and about 400 workers. “We agree with the philosophy of integrating, but we don’t believe in the philosophy of closing down the chances for people to work in a job training program.”

Workshop trap

Sheltered workshops have been around for more than a century in this country and were created to be training grounds to prepare workers with disabilities for competitive employment.

And the Zgodas were counting on sheltered workshops for just that purpose.

“It fits his level of functioning,” said Denise Zgoda, an Orchard Park resident. “It was going to be where he’d go to expand and pick up new skills and work in a safe, supportive setting before going out into the community.”

But critics of the facilities call them discriminatory and exploitative, paying subminimum wages. And chief among their complaints is that the workshops become permanent, and workers are never given a shot at a job in the community.

“We agree that the workshop should not be a dead-end, but we do agree that the workshop has a place on the menu of services,” Gross said. “Some people are not going to make it in the community because of severe behavioral issues or health issues or they want to be with their friends.”

Curtis Decker, executive director of National Disability Rights Network, said there are about 500,000 adults working in sheltered workshops around the country, and they have been forgotten about and left in “segregated conditions, not interacting with non-disabled people.” He said the original intent of the workshops has been lost.

In workshops around the country, his organization has found workers doing repetitive, non-challenging tasks and earning as little as 50 cents to $1 an hour. The Fair Labor Standards Act exempts employers from paying workers with disabilities the minimum wage, compensating them, instead based on their productivity compared to a non-disabled person.

“There’s potential for exploitation,” he said.

Decker’s organization is aggressively advocating for the application of the Olmstead decision in the workplace nationwide, and it’s had success through lawsuits in Oregon and other states.

The transition to competitive employment will have some casualties, Decker admitted, as states, like New York, revamp their programs.

“Some people will fall through the cracks, but it’s our job to make sure that happens the least amount of times,” he said.

Local providers worry that employers wouldn’t be ready to accept workers with disabilities.

“I think our workers are more ready for the community than the community is ready for them,” Gross said.

Frederick, of People Inc., said the community will need “heavy duty education.”

Business benefits

Allentown Industries operates a traditional workshop at Heritage Centers’ headquarters on Oak Street in Buffalo and wood refinishing workshops in Hamburg and the City of Tonawanda.

Carol Blum has logged 30 years at Allentown Industries’ workshop, holding a variety of positions. She now works the concession stand at the workshop. She could have left for supported employment in the community years ago but chose not to. Her job has made her financially independent. She earned enough to recently buy her parent’s house.

Allentown has about 20 contracts with businesses spanning various industries, including banking, over-the-counter pharmacueticals and printing. Contracts bring in about $600,000 a year.

Buffalo Felt, a West Seneca manufacturer and fabricator in the non-woven industry, has been a customer of Allentown for 20 years. Allentown employees clean, stack, box and ship 8 million erasers to Buffalo Felt’s customers a year. “Allentown has consistently done a good job,” said Greg Cavanaugh, general manager of the West Seneca business. While the company is saving money by contracting a sheltered workshop, Cavanaugh said it’s not about the money. Buffalo Felt just doesn’t have the space for the volume of work, and the employees to do the projects that Allentown workers do, he said.

“I don’t have the manpower,” he said. “We have 20 employees and would need 50 more temporary workers. And where would we put them? In the parking lot?”

The Zenger Group, a commercial printing and direct mailing company, also contracts with Allentown and the Goodwill to have educational kits built and shipped to customers. David Zenger, part of the company’s management team, said the workshops, with their abundance of space and workers, have made Zenger more productive and competitive internationally.

“We’re competing with offshore products where we otherwise would not be able to,” Zenger said. “We enjoy our work with them. They do contribute to our success.”

Cavanaugh said losing use of the Allentown Industries workshop would be a hit to his business. He said the company would have to get creative about getting the work done, probably turning it into a cottage industry. But he believes the loss would be greater to the many workshop workers who beam with pride when he visits.

“When I walk in there, they tell me thank you,” he said. “They are proud as hell and very gracious. It gives them a reason to get up in the morning. And I’m happy and proud to give them that work.”

Working with peers

Sheltered workshops have come not only to offer employment, but peer camaraderie, creating an environment where people feel accepted, local providers said. They commonly provide transportation, full-time nursing, counselors and physical therapists and other support services not found in competitive employment.

“It’s great working here,” said Blum, the 30-year veteran. “I know everybody here and everybody knows me. It’s like home. They are like my family.”

Goodwill Industries of Western New York opened the area’s first workshop in 1933 and now has 120 employees. Like other facilities, Goodwill’s program has contracts with area companies. But unlike most workshops, Goodwill’s operation is fairly integrated and is exploring more options in its retail division, said Thomas Lynch, president and CEO of Goodwill.

“We’ll figure how to accommodate as we go,” he said. “We’ve been doing this for almost our entire existence. It’s almost unimaginable not having it be a part of what we do. Everybody wants the best, and we’ll see how it works out.”

Like Allentown, most of the shelter operators do offer supported employment at area businesses and run different divisions in the community, like janitorial and landscaping services. And they are looking to expand them since they fit the state’s transition to integrated workplaces.

The transition to a more integrated workplace for the sheltered workers will not be easy, providers said, but it is inevitable at this point.

The Zgodas recently heard their son could be placed in a new supported employment offered by Aspire, but the program is so new, they are unsure if it’ll be good fit for their son.