"Justin" has intellectual disability and works in a supported employment setting. He enjoys going to work each day. He likes receiving a paycheck each week of his own money that he earned himself and that he may spend as he chooses. Because he works slowly and because he does not understand a variety of dangers present in many workplace settings, Justin would not be able to work for a traditional employer. But in his sheltered workshop, he can work safely at his own pace and take breaks as frequently as he needs. And if his workshop were required to pay all employees minimum wage, his workshop would have to close. If his workshop closed, he would not be able to work anywhere else. I'm thinking of Justin and many other people I know whose lives would be devastated if their only choices for work were among traditional employers because no business would ever hire Justin.
Over the years, people with disabilites have been isolated, exploited and subjected to abuse. This news release highlights the judgment against an employer who committed a wide variety of abuses against some of its employees. Stories like this have led some people to conclude that the government should outlaw current practices of supported employment settings (often called sheltered workshops) and allowing employers to pay some employees less than minimum wage. I strongly disagree.
I've written a number of blogs promoting employment of people with disabilities. There is patent bias against hiring people with disabilities among many employers, and this needs to change. In fact, it is changing in some instances. I think that employers could do much more and would benefit their bottom line if they gave greater consideration to applicants with disabilities and even sought them out. This story highlights several companies that benefited from their targeted hiring of people with disabilities.
However, the National Council on Disability (a federal agency) has come out publicly in favor of discontinuing all supported employment, and also in favor or requiring employers to pay all employees minimum wage. (See both 2014 letters on this page.) While I understand the desire to be fair to all employees, closing all sheltered workshops imposing minimum wage for all employers would in fact drive a lot of people with disabilities out of workforce.
I've had a conversation with a representative of one supported employment workplace who told me that they would not be able to continue to employ so many people if they had to pay all of their employees minimum wage. Then, instead of a significant number of people enjoying the benefits of being productive, workplace comraderie, and receiving a weekly paycheck, they would be stuck at home with little else to do but watch television.
Exploitation and abuse of people with disabilities is always wrong. However, I firmly believe that this wrong will not be corrected by discontinuing supported employment and imposing minimum wage on all employers.
Instead, it would be much more just both to encourage employers to hire people who have disabilities and to provide a variety of employment options for people who can never be employed by traditional employers but still have good work to do in the right settings. Work was one of the many blessings God gave to humankind when they were created. (Genesis 1:22 and 2:15) As a society, we need to do everything possible to provide our citizens opportunities to work. These opportunities must include supported employment such as sheltered workshops.