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Sheltered workshops are fading away, along with a job Chris Cook had for 25 years
Chris Cook has worked dutifully for 25 years, but come Friday he will be out of a job.
Cook has an intellectual disability, and his employment has unfolded in what’s often referred to as a « sheltered workshop » setting. That’s a place where people with disabilities, under careful supervision, do jobs like applying labels to envelopes, packing boxes and putting screws in bags.
The term may once have had a comforting tone, but it’s fallen out of favor in recent years. Companies are phasing them out all across the country, in part because of federal regulations that make it tougher to sustain them.
The reasons are rooted in concerns of people with disabilities and advocacy groups:
The workers make less than minimum wage, raising questions about fairness and exploitation. They work in settings where most employees are disabled, rather than more-integrated settings that are now required by law. There’s also criticism that the employees usually don’t move up to more challenging positions.
The National Council on Disability has recommended phasing out « 14c » jobs, a longtime feature of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Basically, employers apply for certificates that allow them to compensate people with disabilities at a rate less than the minimum wage. Pay is based on the reduced amount the disabled person can produce compared to someone without a disability.
Cook is one of those caught in the throes of change going on in the world of the disabled. He works at Beach Packaging, a program under Community Alternatives Inc., a not-for-profit organization that provides vocational, residential and support services for people with disabilities.
Vince Gallo, executive director of Community Alternatives Inc., said about 50 people are losing their jobs because the company is eliminating 14c employment.
Community Alternatives will still employ other people with disabilities in jobs that pay at least minimum wage. Those being laid off will have the option of applying for those jobs or taking part in other day program services that don’t involve work. He said the company is also developing more job opportunities for people with a wide range of disabilities.
Cook’s mother, Rosemarie Hughes, is worried about how her son will adjust to this change. He’s been at Beach Packaging a long time, and she believes he enjoys the structure of working.
Hughes said Cook, 51, has been offered other types of day activities, but she said if someone were to say, « Let’s go to the zoo instead of your job, » he’d probably say no.
« He likes being there, » Hughes said. « He’s a creature of habit. He likes knowing what to expect. »