Our “Rock Center” Reaction

On the series finale of Rock Center with Brian Williams, Williams highlighted the subminimum wage controversy emerging from sheltered workshops, particularly focusing on Goodwill Industries. Harry Smith conducted the report and examined the “fairness” of sheltered workshop employment.

Exposing the sheltered workshop exemption from Federal Minimum Wage standards, Smith interviewed disability rights advocates as well as people with disabilities who were employed at the Goodwill sheltered workshop.

Smith noted that despite the controversy surrounding the wages of the workshops, for many the workshops are not about the wages, they are about the fulfillment that individuals gain from having employment.  For the New American Movement Team, this endorses our previous position that sheltered workshops should be both a viable business and a vocational resource tool to attain more gainful employment either at the workshop or elsewhere.

The complexity of the sheltered workshops issues is not black and white, open or close; rather there is a middle ground between the sub-minimum wage and the ability of workshops to function as a center of employment and as a business.

Smith interviewed three disability advocates, Mark Mauer, Kathy Steffke and Ari Ne’eman, as to their position on sheltered workshops. To the advocates, sheltered workshops are the clear exploitation of people with disabilities.

Mark Mauer, the President of the National Federation of the Blind states “…[the] sheltered workshop system takes people and systematically tells them they are not as good as the rest of the work force.” The NAMPWD team believes that this statement is only partially valid. The completely segregated environment of the workshops enforces this idea that people with disabilities are “not as good as the rest of the workforce,” however, we can remedy this sentiment amongst the disability community if we integrate the work available to people with disabilities and without disabilities to ensure that their job meets their abilities and personal employment desires. Swiping sheltered workshops away from the disability community will force people with disabilities to compete with this country’s already high levels of unemployment – is that reasonable accommodation?

Equally, Kathy Steffke and Ari Ne’eman agreed that the workshops were the exploitation on the backs of people with disabilities, especially on behalf of Goodwill Industries, a charitable organization.  “How can anybody possibly go into human services thinking they’re going to get rich, and do so on the labor of the most vulnerable citizens that we have?” Steffke asserted. The New American Movement agrees that some workshop environments can exploit their workers in the same way that sweat-shops exploit their workers; however, charitable organizations should not be the only target of this outrage. Goodwill is just as responsible for the wages of their employees as any other US business that exports their labor overseas. Why is it that only charitable organizations are criticized for the wages of their executives? If we are going to hold the excessive salaries against one organization that receives government funding (Goodwill Industries) we must hold the same candle to oil companies, defense contractors and other corporation that receive federal dollars.

Smith noted that Goodwill employs 8,000 people with disabilities of their 110,000 workers. Meaning, 7.2% of their employees are people with disabilities. Though we may not all agree on the wages that Goodwill pays their employees with disabilities, we should acknowledge their efforts to employ people with disabilities at a higher rate than other companies and organizations.

Furthermore, the NAMPWD agrees with Ne’eman in his assertion that the method for determining rates of employees in workshops is an outdated and arbitrary environment, and we do not condone paying employees cents per hour, but in order for workshops to compete with our free market system, the wages fall victim to the commensurate output of the employees.

Lastly and the most important thing to remember in regards to sheltered workshops is that for many, the act of being employed is more fulfilling than the dollar amount on their paycheck. For some people with disabilities, the sheltered workshop provides labor that they would be otherwise overlooked for, it has the capacity to provide social capital, and can even serve as a means to self-value for some with disabilities. We agree whole-heartedly with the disability advocates that sheltered workshops need to use people’s talents instead of “obligating” the individual to fit the job.  People with disabilities, just like every other person in this world should have the ability to define success for themselves, rather than having success defined for them.

Sheltered workshops must reform to provide an integrated and educational environment where people with disabilities can achieve their employment goals and work towards learning skills transferrable to the workforce. Sheltered workshops can be a viable business and source of fulfillment for people with disabilities.  We must learn to accommodate and enhance each person’s ability in employment – let’s reform instead of raze the workshops.

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