Public comment period open for sheltered workshops rule

Man works in produce section of grocery story
Integrated Employment

The Department of Labor has proposed new rules requiring states to take a variety of steps to increase competitive, integrated work opportunities for people with disabilities.

The 60-day public comment period opened April 16 and runs until June 15.

“People with disabilities represent a vital and integral part of our society, and we are committed to ensuring that individuals with disabilities have opportunities to compete for and enjoy high quality employment in the 21st century global economy,” the regulations state. “Some individuals with disabilities face particular barriers to high quality employment.”

The regulations are mandated under the Work Innovation and Opportunity Act, passed by Congress in July 2014. The law, which updated a 1998 law of the same name, is the nation’s primary law governing federal workforce training programs.

Of particular relevance for people with disabilities is Section 511 of the Act, which provides new limitations on state agencies and business that legally employ people with disabilities at subminimum wages under Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. This provision allows state agencies and business to obtain special wage certificates, allowing them to pay certain employees with disabilities, who are otherwise perceived as unemployable, salaries below the minimum wage.

Such arrangements, known as sheltered workshops, have been heavily criticized for failing to provide the necessary training for people with disabilities to join the regular workforce.

The WOIA bans the employment of people under age 23 at subminimum wages in most circumstances. Instead, states and businesses licensed to pay employees subminimum wages must ensure employees first receive so-called transition services in schools, and other “meaningful opportunities” to help them transition into the competitive workforce.

The regulations also modify the definition of “supported employment,” to clarify that people should not remain in subminimum wage positions for longer than six months. The purpose of this change is to ensure that subminimum wage positions are temporary, as opposed to an avenue for employers to pay employee negligible wages for years at a time.

States receiving federal funds under WOIA must allocate at least 50 percent of their allotment to providing supports for people with the most significant disabilities. State will also be subject to a variety of new reporting requirements.

“Giving workers with disabilities the supports and the opportunity to acquire the skills that they need to pursue in-demand jobs and careers is critical to growing our economy, ensuring that everyone who works hard is rewarded, and building a strong middle class,” the rule states.

More information on the proposal and how to submit public comments is available at the Federal Register website.