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.

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