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As Missouri And Illinois Lead The U.S. In Sheltered Workshops, Advocates Push For Change

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St. Louis Public Radio, Jack McGauley & Cathy Brown
Colleen Starkloff (at left), Jack McGauley (center) and Cathy Brown each shared their perspectives as part of Thursday's talk show.

Working as a member of the surgical turnover team at Mercy Hospital St. Louis, Jack McGauley finds himself regularly learning important new skills. That’s been true even during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Whenever we have new things arrive, such as COVID for example, we [have] to go into [training modules] and learn about what we need to do in the operating room so if there’s a patient who has COVID, how we handle that,” he explained. “Because we don’t want ourselves to get sick, and we also don’t want any of the other staff to get sick.”

McGauley hasn’t always found jobs as fulfilling as this one. The 21-year-old St. Louis resident has ADHD and Asperger’s. At Mercy, a supported employment program and coordination with a job coach has him feeling positive about his contributions.

Reflecting on a past situation, he told St. Louis on the Air that he sees the need for a shift in how Americans think about workers who have disabilities.

“Don’t treat us like we’re not human. Don’t think of us as labor with no face or no name,” McGauley said. “We have lives. We’re people … we’re doing our own job. We’re working hard. At the end of the day, I think that’s what pretty much matters.”

As McGauley knows firsthand, not all people with disabilities have had the opportunity to do meaningful work. And in some cases, U.S. law still allows people with disabilities to be paid less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Such work settings, known as sheltered workshops, are a lingering exception to the Fair Labor Standards Act dating back to its 1938 inception.

In September, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a report supporting the phaseout of subminimum wage for people with disabilities. For St. Louisan Colleen Starkloff, founder of the Starkloff Disability Institute, it’s about time. While she’s quick to acknowledge the good intentions that led to the exception, she’s convinced that phasing it out is critical to human dignity and inclusive employment practices.

“There’s a way to do that, and sheltered workshops aren’t it,” Starkloff said.

Cathy Brown, vice president of public policy for Easterseals Midwest, agrees. Her organization works with people in many different kinds of settings, and Easterseals itself has yet to publicly take a position on the push to phase out the subminimum wage. But Brown is eager to see sheltered workshops phased out in a way “that doesn't do harm to people who are utilizing those services.”

“Take a very dispassionate look,” Brown noted, “at the language in the Fair Labor Standards Act. … It says the rights afforded every other citizen of this country don’t apply to you, because you have a disability. ... We can all agree that’s discriminatory.”

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske talked with Starkloff and Brown about why this issue matters and how they hope to build on the momentum of the report recently released by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

“We have more employers [today] who are looking at this population as a workforce, and I think that’s really important,” Starkloff said. “We didn’t have that kind of support before. People with disabilities were kind of put away somewhere. But we’re bringing them out into mainstream jobs using a model called supported employment.”

That model varies in form, but it can sometimes involve a job coach such as the one McGauley consults with on a regular basis in his role at Mercy.

“As people with disabilities assimilate into our society,” Starkloff added, “we will be dispelling the myths and attitudes about being friendly and building relationships with each other. … And these individuals will have a better lifestyle. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Brown emphasized that any phaseout would be a gradual process for sheltered workshops.

“There are a couple of pieces of federal legislation that are moving through Congress that phase out [the] subminimum wage over time,” she explained. “They include extremely robust technical assistance to these organizations so that they can transform to serve people differently. They also include some dollars to go along with that, to help them to support that transition.”

Such phaseouts are not new territory, as Brown pointed out.

“In 2002, Vermont closed its last sheltered workshop, and other states have since followed along, banning the practice of subminimum wage at the state level,” she said. “In Missouri, a very small number of people rely on sheltered workshops even though we’re second in the nation for 14(c) certificates. There are probably about 100,000 people with developmental disabilities in the state of Missouri — about 6,000 of them utilize these services.”

When Fenske asked what a phaseout could mean for those who currently work in sheltered workshops, Brown suggested that it would be “a person by person effort.”

“A lot of people take this issue and say, ‘Well, unless we have another program, we can’t get rid of this one,’” Brown said. “But that’s not really how services work in the field of developmental disabilities. It’s person centered. So [for instance] a Cathy Brown needs to be surrounded by a team of people who know her best and can help her identify her gifts and talents and skills that would be important to an employer who had an opportunity.”

She added that some sheltered workshops are getting creative as they see a big shift underway.

“There are a lot of organizations who see the writing on the wall,” Brown explained, “and they know that there’s an inevitability around phasing out subminimum wage. … [They’re] getting busy in taking the initiative to transition folks into a different kind of setting or transform their services as opposed to having something mandated done to them.”

The conversation also included comments from listeners, who weighed in with their thoughts via email, the St. Louis on the Air Facebook group and Twitter.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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