Sheltered Workshops Are In Midst Of A Storm
Advocates For People With Disabilities Fear Closures
By Rick Karlin Albany Times Union July 20, 2013
For 20 years, V.J. Trombley has begun most of her mornings by boarding a van and traveling the 20 miles from her home in Ticonderoga to Essex Industries, where she builds cane seats and other wooden parts for canoes such as those sold by L.L. Bean and Wenonah.
Trombley is developmentally disabled, and she works at her own pace. That's OK with her fellow workers, who also have intellectual and other disabilities. It's also OK with her employer, which is part of Mountain Lakes Services, a regional organization that serves the disabled.
"I love it here," Trombley said.
She's one of almost 8,000 people in New York state who work in 115 sheltered workshops, or closely supervised settings where their differences are accommodated.
The Essex Industries shop was humming along during a recent visit, but there's a good chance in the next several years it will be as silent as the iron mines that once dotted this region of northern New York.
That's because the state Office for People With Developmental Disabilities has told operators that their funding is being phased out - a product of federal funding reductions, legal challenges against such workshops in other states, and pressure from Washington D.C.
Workshop operators have been told to stop accepting new participants as of this month.
The concept of sheltered workshops has come under fire in recent years from disabilities rights groups who believe they end up keeping the disabled out of the mainstream workforce.
Federal and state officials have come to think that "when you take any group of people and you put them all together, you are segregating them," said Marc Brandt, executive director of NYSARC, the umbrella agency for local groups like Essex Industries.
But people who operate workshops such as Essex say they don't know what their clientele will do once the doors are closed. No one can guarantee that the workers will find new jobs — especially in regions like the North Country, where work of any kind can be scarce.
There are programs where private employers use "job coaches" and make other accommodations for disabled workers. But those are relatively rare and hard to sustain, according to people in the disability field.
"If we didn't have this, my guess is they would be sitting home doing nothing," said Martin Nephew, executive director of Mountain Lakes Services, which runs Essex Industries.
"They might otherwise be in nursing homes," added Hans Meissner, executive director of the Rensselaer ARC, which operates a small work center where people help package instant coffee and soup mix used in the state prison system.
By some accounts, the concept of sheltered workshops dates to 16th-century Europe. They grew rapidly in the U.S. after World War II as a strategy for providing jobs to wounded veterans.
The term "sheltered" denotes the idea that disabled people who work there are protected from the competitive pressures found in the larger labor market.
But they are falling out of favor, due to concerns about isolation and the pay, which can be below minimum wage.
Facing a lawsuit, the state of Oregon earlier this year moved to downsize its sheltered workshop program. In June, the U.S. Department of Justice reached an agreement with Rhode Island under which the Ocean State would close its sheltered workshops.
There have also been charges that some workshops exploit the disabled. A recent NBC News investigation contrasted the half-million-dollar annual salary paid to the chief of a Southern California Goodwill Industries chapter with his workers pay of less than a dollar an hour.
But some say phasing out all of New York's workshops may be a case of throwing out the baby with the bath water in order to head off criticism.
Specifically, workshop operators and parents of disabled people note that the looming closures fail to distinguish between poor-quality programs and success stories like Essex Industries or Rensselaer ARC.
Cherie Indelicato recalled earlier programs her disabled brother, Steven Collins, attended in Albany when the family lived in the Capitol Region. "He didn't really do much," she said. "They would make lunch."
When they moved to the Mineville area in Essex County, they were pleased to see that Steven could work at Essex Industries.
"It gives people a sense of purpose," she said. "He gets to work with his hands. He gets to see how things are made. He likes the people." Indelicato said they don't know what they'll do if the program shuts down.
Economic as well as societal pressures have been squeezing these programs. In Fulton County, the Lexington ARC recently closed its workshop in part because many of the job opportunities have been shipped overseas or simply dried up.
"The jobs weren't as readily available," said Shaloni Winston, Lexington's executive director.
Some clients have found employment in janitorial services or in kitchens. In a diversification move, Lexington is opening a used clothing store.
Others charge that New York's phaseout had been offered as a bargaining chip to the federal government during negotiations earlier this year to resolve what the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said were years of overcharges by the state. (People who work in sheltered workshops typically are covered by Medicaid.)
"Medicaid is driving the agenda," said Paul Cesana, executive director of the Chautauqua County ARC program in western New York, which like Essex has carved out a niche for itself by making cargo bags and first aid pouches for the military.
One thing seems certain: Without federal and state support, even the most ambitious workshops would be unlikely to survive on their own. "Essex Industries does not exist because the world needs canoe seats," said Beth McKenna, CEO of Mountain Lakes Services. "Essex Industries exists as a vehicle to provide opportunities for people."