Sheltered Work Phasing Out in Rhode Island; Will Your State Host the Next Olmstead Investigation?

Home/conversion, employment first, exploitation, sheltered workshops, supported employment, transition/Sheltered Work Phasing Out in Rhode Island; Will Your State Host the Next Olmstead Investigation?

This week, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) reached a landmark settlement based on the conclusion that the state of RI and the city of Providence failed to provide services to individuals with developmental disabilities in the most integrated setting, and were putting students in a school transition program at risk of unnecessary segregation in sheltered workshop and day program settings. Earlier this year, DOJ had investigated the state for violating the Olmstead decision of the Supreme Court through its day activity services system. They focused on Training Through Placement (TTP), a North Providence agency that had a sheltered workshop with transitioning students from the Birch Vocational Program and other schools.

Under the settlement, individuals in Birch and the TTP workshops will now receive supported employment and integrated day services sufficient to support 40 hours per week. It is expected people will work an average of 20 hours a week and receive competitive wages. According to the agreement, supported employment placements cannot be in sheltered workshops, group enclaves, mobile work crews, time-limited work experiences (internships), or other facility-based day programs.

The 29-page agreement is quite comprehensive, and follows on the heels of another DOJ intervention regarding sheltered workshops in Oregon (see The Good, Bad and Ugly). This now marks two separate states that within the last six months have been pushed, under the Olmstead decision, into finally taking action against their long-standing policies of primarily funding sheltered workshops for day services. Clearly, the issue of day service segregation is finally moving from “wait and see” to civil rights enforcement. 

Let’s look at the Rhode Island situation further. TTP workers with disabilities made an average $1.57 per hour, with one person making as little as 14 cents per hour. The investigation also found that Birch students were generally denied diplomas. Most were paid between 50 cents and $2 per hour, or were not paid at all, regardless of productivity. DOJ noted that the Birch program had been in existence for 25 years, and was a “direct pipeline” for cheap labor for TTP, which had contracts with local companies. The jobs were mostly typical of sheltered workshops, assembling jewelry, bagging, labeling and collating.

Effective March 31, 2014, the State will no longer provide placement or funding for any sheltered workshop or segregated day activity services at TTP. Further, last March, Rhode Island embraced an Employment First policy. Under the new policy, new participants in the state system that provides employment and other daytime services to 3,600 people with developmental disabilities will no longer be placed in sheltered workshops. The sheltered workshops should be completely phased out within the next two to three years.

The next question that should come to mind, if you are running or funding a program in a state chock full of workshops, is “Am I next?” Readers of this blog can examine the case presented for moving away from sheltered employment in other posts here. I also have had this discussion with some of the US DOJ attorneys. It’s time to expand the Employment First movement so that we away from sub-minimum wage, segregation, and limited work options, based on an obsolete model that can leave people open to exploitation. People with disabilities deserve better in every state. Employment First should not just be rhetoric. Take a leadership role now; there is no reason to wait for a lawsuit…

About the Author: