Proposed changes to a federal rule have people who operate sheltered workshops concerned.
President Joe Biden administration's stimulus bill, known as the American Rescue Plan, would eliminate Section 14(c), under which government may issue certificates authorizing employers to pay sub-minimum wages to workers with disabilities that impair their productivity for the work they perform.
If the federal government removes the exemption, sheltered workshops would not be able to afford to continue providing work for many people with disabilities, said Tracy Gritsenko, an organizer for A Team Missouri and director of public policy and advocacy for Industrial Aid Inc. in St. Louis.
A Team Missouri is one of 20 chapters of A Team USA, which advocates for people with special needs. It strives to ensure the full array of options and opportunities for individuals with disabilities.
"Section 14(c) enables sheltered workshops to employ people with a wide variety of disabilities who have a wide variance of abilities, who otherwise would not be in the workforce," Gritsenko said in an email. "Working in a sheltered workshop provides these individuals with a work routine — just like everyone else — which they desire."
Dignity Has a Voice, an organization formed to empower people with disabilities and their family members to defend and protect the right to choose sheltered employment, has issued a call to action.
The organization posted Thursday on its Facebook page an alert and request for supporters to contact their U.S. lawmakers.
The alert warns elimination of Section 14(c) could force sheltered workshops to close.
Workshop families and their clients have posted testimonials on the organization's Facebook page.
Amanda Rapp posted a photo of a letter she wrote to Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, about her daughter, who chose to work at a sheltered workshop. Rapp wrote her daughter may not earn the minimum wage, but she works in a safe environment, surrounded by peers who support each other.
No, the money she earns isn't much, but it helps her pay for entertainment and her YMCA membership while also giving her independence, Rapp said.
Rapp asked that lawmakers not take a one-size-fits-all approach to the Section 14(c) question.
The alert calls on people to email or post to their lawmakers' social media pages Monday and tell them why they choose to use sheltered workshops, how the workshops support their families and what would happen if they didn't have the workshops.
The U.S. Department of Labor lists 56 workshops in Missouri that — as of Oct. 1 — were certified or had certifications pending on its website.
Those with certifications serve more than 1,000 people with disabilities, according to data on the site. As of Oct. 1, New Horizons Community Support Services in Jefferson City served four clients. Capitol Projects Inc. in Jefferson City served 77. Central Missouri Subcontracting Enterprises in Columbia served 85.
Sheltered workshops provide workers with opportunities for job growth and skill growth, Gritsenko said. Many thrive in the workshop setting.
Some may go on to other types of employment. Some stay at the workshops.
"The idea is to provide work environments that work for all individuals," Gritsenko said. "We should be adding opportunities — not taking them away."
It's important to note, she said, that many have tried other types of employment. That doesn't always work out because of the range of abilities each client has.
"A lot of their capabilities have to do with packaging," she said. "Shrink-wrap, poly bagging, small work. There are some horticultural nurseries in the state."