Feds, Rhode Island reach agreement over sheltered workshops

The 200 individuals employed by Providence-based Training Through Placement make an average hourly wage of $1.57. Their days consist of little more than monotonous tasks, such as”packaging and labeling medical supplies, wrapping television remote controls in plastic or hand-sorting jewelry.”

Though TTP was meant to provide transition employment services for people with disabilities, the jobs are not temporary. For years the state has ushered students from the Harold A. Birch Vocational Program, at Providence’s Mount Pleasant High School, into TTP’s programs, with little opportunity for them to integrate with their larger communities. The average job tenure is between 15 and 30 years.

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But under a new legal agreement announced June 13 by the Department of Justice, the State of Rhode Island and the City of Providence, this system is about to be overhauled.

Under the first-of-its kind agreement, people with disabilities in the state will receive supported employment and integrated day services sufficient to support a 40-hour work week. It is expected they will work an average 20 hours a week at a job at competitive wages.

“Separate is not equal.This is a new day in Rhode Island. The students from Birch will be holding regular jobs. The state will help every student succeed. We will be offering real jobs with real wages,” DOJ attorney Eve Hill said at news conference, according to the Providence Journal.

Under section 14(c) the Fair Labor Standards Act, enacted in 1938, employers can apply to the Department of Labor for a Special Minimum Wage Certificate, which allows them to pay certain employees with severe disabilities subminimum wages. It is meant to provide temporary job opportunities to individuals whom otherwise may not be employed.

The Department of Justice began investigating TTP in January 2013, concluding that the state’s system of sheltered services constituted a form of discriminatory segregation, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

With the agreement, the DOL revoked TTP’s certificate, though it will have the opportunity to regain its certificate in August, if it meets certain conditions.

“The intent of the law is clear — that workers with disabilities deserve an opportunity to be given meaningful work and receive an income, and employers that provide those opportunities may pay such workers below the current federal minimum wage, but only when key conditions are met,” said Mary Beth Maxwell, acting deputy administrator of the Wage and Hour Division, in a news release.

For more information on sheltered workshops, the National Disability Rights Network’s 2012 report “Beyond Segregated and Exploited” can be read here.