Every day, hundreds of men and women with disabilities clock in to work at Montgomery County’s Developmental Enterprises Corporation (DEC), where they’ll spend their workday in manufacturing or packing. At four of five centers in the county, these individuals made an average of $1.48 hourly.
DEC is one of many Pennsylvania organizations and businesses that work under a federal certification allowing employers to pay subminimum wages for labor performed by employees with disabilities. And, as PublicSource reported, that federal program is under fire from those who see the practice as exploitation.
Supporters point to groups like DEC as examples of the good that can be accomplished by the federal program. At DEC, employees with disabilities can take advantage of vocational rehabilitation services that offer subminimum-wage work as a component of a comprehensive support program or, separately, employment services that help individuals find competitive employment in the community.
Located in Norristown, DEC works with more than 500 individuals with intellectual disabilities per year through various programs, including vocational training, community residencies, supportive living services, and employment assistance. The company has 180 staff members working with disabled individuals in various capacities, CEO Susan Golec said.
The company has training centers in Norristown, Worcester, Hatfield, Pottstown and Willow Grove. According to documents obtained by PublicSource from the U.S. Department of Labor, 286 disabled workers at four of the five DEC training centers made an average of $1.48 an hour. The Worcester center serves individuals with more severe disabilities that prevent them from doing any paid work, Golec said.
The workers are not directly employed with DEC and receive their wages from the state, she added. The training centers are supported by the Montgomery County Office of Developmental Programs and the Pennsylvania State Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, as well as private donations and government grants, according to DEC’s website.
Individuals work under a DEC staff member to bundle or glue samples to a company’s mailing materials, assemble markers or package goods, which Golec said helps to develop vocational skills and increase
s motor skills. An employee who identified herself as “Theresa” said she had worked with DEC for more than 20 years and reported with a smile that she completes nearly 150 mailers daily.
“Some individuals work 20 percent of the day, while others are 50-50. High-functioning individuals can work up to 80 percent of their day,” said Kathleen Wagner, director of the Norristown center.
The amount and type of work depends on the capabilities and willingness of the individuals, who can expect a paycheck of $1 to $200 every two weeks, depending on productivity, Golec said.
Additionally, DEC job coaches help individuals find employment with Wawa convenience stores, North Penn School District, Gwynedd Mercy University, Staples and local grocery stores doing anything from janitorial and maintenance work to customer services and food preparation.
Increasing the Value of Life
Devereux Foundation, a nonprofit behavioral healthcare provider, offers a similar array of services to disabled individuals nationally, statewide, and at various locations in the Greater Philadelphia Area.
“We provide services across the spectrum,” said Maggie Haag, program director of Devereux’s Community Adult Autism Partnership Program (CAAPP). “We encourage anything that increases independence or increases the value of life.”
Through CAAPP, adults with autism spectrum disorder receive vocational and behavioral training with the ultimate goal of regular community employment receiving competitive wages. Similarly, high school students with autism can receive prevocational training through Devereux’s CARES program.
“All of the individuals we provide services for are seeking employment in the local community,” Haag said. “We start from scratch to find out what they like and what they don’t like. We identify areas where they need support and work with family and potential employers to find situations geared towards their strengths and their interests.”
Through CAAPP, individuals have been able to find work with local businesses and larger franchises receiving minimum wage or higher.
However, Haag said, some of the disabled employees that Devereux works with are not ready for community employment either because of physical and mental limitations or preference. Devereux also offers subminimum-wage working opportunities in a vocational training program.
The Shops at Devereaux, located in Devon, employs workers doing greenhouse work, bike assembly and floral arrangement. There is even an automotive center licensed to give state inspections.
According to the documents from the U.S. Department of Labor, 56 disabled employees at the Shops made an average of $4.01 an hour.
The Struggle to Adapt
Handi-Crafters Inc. is a nonprofit organization based in Chester County that offers various work and independent-living programs for individuals with disabilities ranging from Down syndrome and cerebral palsy to mental illness and traumatic brain injuries.
The company provides job coaching, job placement and skills training, vocational evaluation, independent-living solutions and a school–to-work program.
There are 375 individuals employed under the work program, tasked with packing and assembling boxes and heat sealing. Some are also trained to operate industrial machinery. According to its latest application to pay special wages, the workers there were earning an average of $2.37 an hour.
Workers in the skill development program not only learn how to execute the task at hand, but they also learn time management, how to handle criticism and consequences, and how to interact and behave in a work setting, Executive Director Amy Rice said.
Workers are paid every two weeks. Wages are calculated based on how much work is produced each day and compared to what the average non-disabled individual can do performing the same task. Rice said those subminimum wages are based off of prevailing wages paid to employees at local businesses, and each individual performs at different rates.
Handi-Crafters contracts with businesses to provide a service and work for individuals in the program. Based on the organization’s 2012-13 annual report, they received about $3 million in service contracts and workshop revenues. About $5 million was spent on workshop rehabilitation.
If the federal government ends the issuance of certifications that allow employers to pay subminimum wages, organizations similar to Handi-Crafters won’t have enough funding to pay minimum-wage salaries to individuals in the work program, Rice said.
While walking through Handi-Crafter’s campus, Rice said she was concerned about what would happen to the individuals who are unable to adapt in the normal working world. She said a large majority of workers would have to return home because of an inability to maintain a normal work ethic or perform tasks some take for granted.
“There are a lot of people with disabilities who can’t keep up with the normal workforce,” Rice said.
‘The Right to Choose’
Concerns about the loss of this program also leaks from the more than 160-year-old Delaware County organization, Elwyn Inc.
Elwyn offers employment services and work programs for about 280 individuals in the work program at Delaware County out of nearly 650 at other Elwyn campuses on the East Coast.
The organization deals with a few federal contracts, piecing together bandages for wounded soldiers as well as making and packaging military medals. They also deal with other contracts that require workers to sort, package, seal, wrap and file.
“There is value in everything you do and we support individuals who choose what works best for them,” said Kendra Johnson, Elwyn’s executive director of employment and adult day care.
In Elwyn’s latest application to the federal government, its Delaware County workers were earning an average of 76 cents an hour.
Tasks are assigned based on the person’s ability and interest, Johnson said.
“It’s all about choice,” Johnson said. “Don’t they have the right to choose what they want to do?”
According to Johnson, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach when it comes to the workforce.
“It’s our reality and you can’t escape that reality. There are people that are on the opposite sides of the fence,” she said.
There are people who see the program as a useful tool, and others who believe individuals with disabilities are being used for cheap labor, she said. But while not everyone can perform the same task at the same rate, she said, the program at Elwyn offers individuals with disabilities an opportunity to experience a sense of accomplishment while earning a paycheck.
Kristina Scala is a reporter at The Daily Local in West Chester, Pa. Brendan Wills is a reporter at The Times Herald in Norristown, Pa.