Friday, January 27, 2012

I work at a really cool place

Would it surprise you to know that America has sweatshops? I was. I was even more surprised when I found out that the sweatshops in our country were filled with people with disabilities.

A class action lawsuit was filed in Oregon on behalf of people with disabilities. Their lawsuit claims they are institutionalized in what are called ‘sheltered’ workshops. Congressman Cliff Stearns (R-FL) introduced a bill last October that would repeal section 14(C) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. This portion of the law allows those people with significant disabilities to work for less than the minimum wage. Stearns and his supporters argue that this loophole – originally intended to provide those with disabilities a chance at meaningful employment opportunities in a competitive market – has turned into a means for employers to exploit the labor of those with limited opportunities.

A lawsuit filed in Oregon challenges the failed state programs that operate under the federal program. Their lawsuit states that instead of providing a means of training and integration, the operators of these non-profit programs are institutionalizing and segregating their employees. Yes, the non-profit agencies are taking advantage of the people they were created to help. Surprise you?

In the papers filed in Oregon on behalf of the more than 2,300 disabled persons they argue the state has left them in ‘dead-end’ facilities “that offer virtually no interaction with non-disabled peers, that do not provide any real pathway to integrated employment and that provide compensation that is well below minimum wage." Last year the National Disability Rights Network published a blistering assessment of the sheltered workshops, saying that these workshops “have replaced institutions in many states as the new warehousing system and are the new favored locations where people with disabilities are sent to occupy their days." So Stearns and his co-sponsor Bishop (D-NY) have introduced HR 3086 that will remove the sub-minimum wages allowed under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Opponents of the bill, say that this bill will harm the people they are trying to protect. (I know, who is against paying people a fair wage – right?) They argue that there are individuals with disabilities that are not able to work at the productivity levels required by other employers. They
state that some individuals do not possess the ‘knowledge, skills, or abilities’ to work without ‘direct supervision and assistance.’ They argue, that employers will not hire someone that needs assistance at that level.

They have a point. Sometimes employees need more help than the company is able to provide. It still seems as though this law is being abused. I hope its not, but if it is, fix it. If it can’t be fixed, and I’ve seen some indications that this may be the case in some places, then do away with the sub-minimum wages and the abuse that follows.

Why am I writing about this today? I believe in leveling the playing field and letting a meritocracy take place. The company I work for is a phenomenal place to be. We are unique in many ways. My company is a non-profit, social enterprise located in Jacksonville, FL. Our core business and mission is to develop opportunities in a variety of sectors to create jobs
for people with disabilities. We work with the Wounded Warrior Project. We leverage set-aside contracting regulations that grant us access to non-competitive contracts with federal and state government agencies. The business model brought staggering growth over the last two years. We are expanding this year due to a large donation of manufacturing equipment. We will soon be manufacturing drug tests and hold the corresponding patents, etc. More than 75% of the direct labor will be performed by persons with disabilities.

At our company, no one is ever paid less than minimum wage. As my colleague has stated, “The demand for workplaces that offer a diverse set of work opportunities to people with disabilities at a decent wage alongside their non-disabled peers is going to be intense in the coming years.” We are ahead of the curve and intend to remain there. With accomodations, most persons with disabilities can be as productive (and sometimes way more) than the next average joe. We intend to show the world that the accomodations are a worthwhile investment, be the humans are the true resource.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Lost and Found

I had such great plans for this year. I was going to write my book, lose weight and get out of debt. Last weekend was a perfect example of my life. It stood up, smacked me around a little, made me loose focus and sent me running around in circles. Yes, I had a really good time at dinner with friends. Yes, the food was yummy, but did not help me lose weight or get out of debt or help me write my book. It is now January 26. Where did the freaking time go?

All right now. My grandmother used to tell me to count my blessings. My mom was more on the melancholy sides of things like I am. I have many blessings to count. A wonderful husband I will grow old with, a beautiful and gifted daughter, two funny and smart sons who are a blast to hang around with, and I have my mind. This is not a small blessing. I'm not saying my head is large, it can be, but isn't right now.

My mom died on my daughter's fourth birthday. She had been valedictorian of her high school class and had wanted to go to college. Girls going to college didn't happen so much when she was in her late teens. She didn't particularly want kids. She confided this to me one night after dinner and a movie and mother-daughter date. She had five. She had wanted a career and had gotten five children, a grouchy husband and a farm to run. My mom had been really smart. She knew things. She had read voraciously and installed in me a LOVE of learning - even of things not related to my life. I suppose I can blame her for my mindless searching of the internet for more news, more information, more anything other than what I am supposed to be working on.

When my mom was my age, she had her mind too. Then she lost it. I'll be 42 this year. The age my mother was when I was born. I can't imagine having another child now. I don't have the energy or attention for one. My daughter will be ten (the same age as my brother was when I was born - he the closest sibling of the five I have). I wonder if my mom felt the same despair I did when I thought I was pregnant at 41. I never asked her. I don't really want to know the answer.

I don't know exactly how old my mom was when she lost her mind. I know that she was never the same after she found out my father had been having an affair with a secretary at work FOR YEARS! They had been together for 35 years. I was ten. She moved off the farm and bought a house with her half of the farm's equity. She raised me by herself until I went to college. By the time I was old enough to have pulled my head out of my own rectum, my mom was sick. My oldest some came when I was 21, followed by another at 24. It was then that I noticed that Mom wasn't quite right. My adorable and sweet newborn boy was mostly ignored by Mom. She battled breast cancer, then had heart surgery, then slowly lost her way.

I think living alone was not good for her. She had waited all her life to have a home of her own - without kids under her feet or a husband and farm to manage. She always told me that she wanted me to experience living on my own, in my own place, without other people depending on me. I didn't understand at the time why that was important. I was intent on not being alone, intent to start a family and a LIFE. Why would I opt for being alone? I understand now. It is good for the soul when there's not another soul tugging on an metaphoric apron string. Except when its not.

My mother spent her time as she wanted to spend it. Reading. In her chair. With her cat. As I write this, I have my own cat on my lap purring away. There is a comfort in furry little beast with a fuzzy little mind keeping your lap warm. That wasn't enough to keep my mom with us though. She developed early onset Alzheimers (like my grandmother). She had scared me when she had talked about my grandmothers sickness. She swore she wasn't going to go through with it. She bought a handgun and was going to make sure she did not put her children through what her mother put her through. She didn't and she did. Life is full of circles.

The last seven years of her life were spent in nursing homes and hospitals with bracelets on her leg or arm to keep her from wandering off. I prefer to believe she wanted to follow her mind where ever it lead. It would have killed her, but I understand the desire to walk and wander, to smell the breeze and see what is around the next bend in the trail.

When they called my sister to tell her it was time to come say goodbye to Mom, my sister called me. It was a 12 hour drive that took us 24 hours. Through a windstorm, overturned semi-trucks, and random coyote charges, we made it there in the nick of time. Mom barely had a pulse or blood pressure and the nurses were sure that we weren't going to make it in time to say goodbye. They had called us several times on the trip. Each time, my sister would answer the phone and look at me with terror, grief and pain in her eyes. We dreaded the call that would say we were too late.

We arrived and found my mother was just a bundle of bones and skin on the bed. We came in and talked to her, stroked her hot hands and arms, told her it was okay. Her heart raced. Her blood pressure sky rocketed. The nurse said she might have a heart attack if she didn't calm down. The nurse also said that there is no way my mother could have known we were there.

My sister and I don't believe that. Mom knew. Somewhere, down in there, she knew. Her mind was there, just wandering and lost. She died shortly after that. She never met my daughter. I think about what my mom said about not dying as her mother did and I feel the same way. I already have the handgun. My husband's father died the same way my mom did - lost and wandering in his own mind. We have vowed that we will not put our children through that. We will take our RV and accidently dump it over the side of a canyon. Or we will ride four-wheelers and wander in the Alaskan tundra. Or we will walk out into the dessert hand in hand to wander - not alone and not lost.

Until then, I will be grateful that I have my mind. I will be grateful that I have time to spend with my interesting children. I will be grateful that I have sisters and brothers and friends to spend money and time with. I will be grateful that my mom gave up her dreams so that I could have this. Thank you Mom. I miss you.