A traumatic fall four years ago left Lenora Robinson of Waterford with chronic back pain and a neurological disorder that made work as she knew it impossible.

So when 51-year-old Robinson, a former nursing assistant, learned about work programs for people with disabilities from a PublicSource report, she saw it as perhaps her only option to help pay household bills and to escape the isolation of home — despite the low wages and menial work.

“I understand the lower wages because with my disability, I’m not able to produce adequately,” said Robinson, who was earning $15 an hour before her fall. “Someone who is healthy can do things better. I cannot give 100 percent of what a person perfectly healthy can give. I can give 100 percent of what I’m capable of doing now.”

About 13,000 Pennsylvanians with disabilities earn an average of $2.40 an hour from employers who have permission from the federal government to pay low piece-rate wages to people with disabilities. Most toil in settings that are explicitly for the disabled, referred to as sheltered workshops.

An obscure provision in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 makes this legal, but, it has become a highly controversial practice. Treatment of people with disabilities has evolved toward finding the most integrated and least restrictive home and work settings possible — a standard the country adopted 24 years ago in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Two state lawmakers said that, in light of PublicSource’s earlier story, they are looking at the use of subminimum-wage work programs for workers with disabilities.

The stark contrast in opinions over the work programs also played out in a PublicSource poll. As of Tuesday, 42 percent of readers who responded to the poll favored integration into regular workplaces at competitive wages; another 39 percent said the focus on low wages was misplaced because the programs provide meaningful activity.

The remaining 19 percent took the middle ground, asking for a limit on how little the workers could be paid. Congress eliminated the wage floor in 1986.

The common thread: Most believe more employment and activity options for the disabled must be developed.

Evan Biesecker

Evan Biesecker, who is deaf, autistic and has a mild intellectual disability, works in the produce department of Giant Food Stores in Pottstown. (Photo courtesy of Angela Biesecker)

Angie Biesecker of Pottstown in Montgomery County said her son Evan, a 29-year-old who is deaf, autistic and has a mild intellectual disability, was bored by the ‘subpar’ work in a sheltered workshop and she said he could tell his work was being valued differently than it would in a regular job.

In January, Evan began working in the produce department of a grocery store, and he may have the opportunity to work in other departments.

“There is no higher level in sheltered workshops; you learn your job and that’s what you get,” she said. “There should be more choices on the table.”

Detractors of the program say the workshops are another form of segregation, and that the low-skill work perpetuates a stereotype that people with disabilities can’t contribute more to society.

But without other choices, supporters of the work programs — including nonprofit leaders who provide the work and families who rely on it — say closing the workshops would be detrimental to the workers who through these programs gain vocational and personal skills as well as self-esteem.

Lisa Niebuhr of West Caln Township in Chester County said her daughter, Jennifer, is the perfect example of someone who has flourished in a workshop setting.

Jennifer Niebuhr

Jennifer Niebuhr, a 27-year-old with Down syndrome, wraps electrical cords at Handi-Crafters in Delaware County. Her mother says her verbal and social skills have improved dramatically through the work for which she earns $55 to $65 every two weeks. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Niebuhr)

Jennifer, a 27-year-old with Down syndrome, has been bagging shoe-polish kits and wrapping electrical cords, among other jobs, for a biweekly paycheck of $55 to $65 at Handi-Crafters for six years. The average hourly pay there is $2.37, according to U.S. Department of Labor records.

Lisa said her daughter’s verbal and social skills have improved dramatically through the work, and she likes the structure and safety that Handi-Crafters provides.

“We as parents know the capabilities of our daughter and realize that she, not unlike a lot of adults who work in these places, are not able to work in the community,” she said. “We also know what we are signing them up for. In no way are they exploited.”

Lori Bartol, director of the Center for Creative Works in Montgomery County, said her nonprofit is focused on developing more options and moving away from the typical workshop model.

The center employs artists to help people with disabilities build careers in art and design. Bartol said they exhibit and sell their work in the community.

“If we can create a platform where they can be seen and heard and share a really unique human experience with the public, that’s the greater purpose for us,” she said.

While the center does pay subminimum wages that average $3.16 an hour for baking dog treats with a recipe they created, Bartol said the goal is to pay more as they grow the business.

Not a ‘simple equation’

Tim with dog treats at the Center for Creative Works

Tim (whose last name was not disclosed for privacy reasons) poses with a tray of dog treats, which are baked and packaged at the Center for Creative Works in Montgomery County. Those who prepare the dog treats earn an average of $3.16 an hour. (Photo courtesy of Center for Creative Works)

Two state advocacy groups have also taken an interest in the state’s sheltered workshops.

The Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania is analyzing how much of the public money dedicated to people with intellectual disabilities is going to segregated workshops compared to supported employment, job coaching and other efforts toward integrated work settings, said network attorney Carol Horowitz.

The Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia is tracking how schools prepare students with disabilities to transition into work or post-secondary education. Sonja Kerr, the center’s director of disabilities rights, said they plan to scrutinize public policy surrounding the issue.

“We are going to be advocates for societal change and use the courts where necessary,” she said.

Pennsylvania has not taken measures to close sheltered workshops like Vermont, Massachusetts and New York have, but the Department of Public Welfare has been meeting with workshop providers to discuss how to prioritize community employment.

State Rep. William F. Keller, Democratic chair of the state House Labor and Industry Committee, said, through a spokesperson, that he will be looking into the practice of paying subminimum wages to workers with disabilities.

State Rep. Dan Frankel, a Democrat representing part of Allegheny County, which has the largest number of disabled workers earning subminimum wages in the state, said the programs deserve a closer look.

“I would say on the surface that it’s never right to pay someone less than minimum wage, but I just don’t think it’s a simple equation,” he said. “There ought to be some way to re-evaluate what we’re doing and whether it’s benefiting folks with disabilities.”

As other states tackle the issue, many families and advocates worry these workers will end up with nothing to do and little supervision during the day, according to media reports.

To address those concerns, New York state has developed a program to find competitive employment or other options for its more than 8,000 disabled residents in workshops, according to a report by The Journal News in Westchester County, N.Y. New York plans to close the workshops within six years.

Vermont closed all sheltered workshops in 2003, and according to a 2012 report by the National Council on Disability, its rate of integrated employment for people with developmental disabilities is twice the national average.

Reach Halle Stockton at 412-315-0263 or hstockton@publicsource.org.

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Halle is executive director, editor-in-chief of PublicSource. She has served as editor-in-chief since May 2022 after seven years as managing editor during which PublicSource won two consecutive international...