Of increasing concern is a bill introduced in the House of Representatives that would make it nearly impossible for groups like KANDU or VIP to keep their employees on the job.
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The Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act, introduced last year by Republican Mississippi Congressman Gregg Harper, would phase out special wage certificates under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 under which individuals with disabilities may be employed at subminimum wage rates.
Opponents of what many still called sheltered workshops feel that they subject people with disabilities to unfair circumstances, primarily unjust wages, and they feel that they would be better served fully integrated into regular jobs in the community.
If you ask Gary Bersell, executive director at KANDU, he even finds the term "sheltered workshops" outdated.
"We don’t use that term anymore," Bersell said. "We call our programs pre-vocational, sheltered workshop has a very negative connotation; we even get some people trying to call them sweatshops."
Cindy Simonsen, executive director of VIP Services, agrees that some of her clients should be integrated out in the regular working world, but it’s unrealistic for people who are more severely disabled.
"We have a large community employment department where we actually try continually to get our people jobs out in the community," Simonsen said. "It’s a fairly complex issue though -- one size doesn’t fit all. And we have a lot of people that we serve that have complex disabilities that sometimes act as barriers for those people that work against them getting jobs out in the community."
Bersell has found the same results in his experience, not only in his work at KANDU, but as the special education director as well.
"They want all of our clients to be integrated into the community, and I can tell you right now that’s not going to happen," Bersell said. "I was with the Janesville public schools for 35 years. I was the director of special education. I went through Public Law 94-142, when we had to integrate everyone in our special classes into regular classrooms. That didn’t work because some of our more severely handicapped people should not be sitting through an algebra class, they should be learning things that are more useful to them, like daily living skills."
There is significant friction surrounding the fact that organizations like KANDU and VIP make use of the subminimum wage law in order to function, but both Simonson and Bersell say that they couldn’t serve their clients otherwise. Both programs pay a commensurate rate. They start by performing a prevailing wage study for a given task and pay their disabled employees that rate based on their productivity.
"There is talk in Washington about getting rid of the subminimum wage law. There are probably 70 some organizations like us in the state that use that law so we can pay our clients differently," Bersell said. "How it works is we do a prevailing wage study. So let’s say that the assemblers out in the community are getting $10 an hour. Then we put all of our clients who are assemblers through a lab so we can test them to see what their production percentage is. Let’s say someone tests out at 50 percent of a non-disabled person, then they would get 50 percent of those prevailing wages."
A big part of KANDU’s and VIP’s business is contracting tasks that their workers can do with local industries like Hormel, Generac and Cummins.
Much of the work is comprised of assembly, material handling and packaging. But both Simonsen and Bersell say an equal part of their mission is to help prepare their clients for working in the community and providing training and resources to help them locate a suitable job.
"The state of Wisconsin is an employment-first state, which means that we have determined that the first option for people with disabilities should be employment in the community in an integrated setting," Simonsen said. "As an agency, we agree with that so our first task is to try to get people integrated employment. Also, because we are a pre-vocational program, we provide other activities and things in addition to our in-house work that help our clients develop the skills they would need, that are non-job specific. We call them soft skills, things like following directions and listening to your supervisor, showing up for work on time and those types of things."
How does Wisconsin
Time will tell what direction the debate on pre-vocational programs takes, but here in Wisconsin it seems that they are an important and effective component in dealing with the issue of finding suitable employment for people with disabilities. Part of any properly functioning system is oversight, and both KANDU and VIP stand by their track records of compliance and community response.
"They are all good organizations and they meet the needs of a lot of disabled individuals through pre-vocational programs and I think that they are all very good and very needed," said Sharyn Johnson, executive director of Guardian Friends in Rock County. "I know the state would like to have more community integration, but it’s very difficult for people with disabilities. There aren’t even a lot of jobs open right now for people without disabilities, so the job market is limited. I know that if a person is at a level where they can seek outside employment, these organizations are able to help, and they do it."
Simonsen and Bersell both feel that the issue is complex, but a great safeguard against misconception about what their organizations do is finding out for yourself by visiting.
"If people haven’t been here and see what we do, they really don’t have any understanding at all of the kinds of people that we work with and the kinds of things we do here," said Simonsen. "We are constantly trying to invite the community in to see what we are doing."
"Come out and see it firsthand," Bersell said. "That way you can better understand how we serve our clients."