People in Kansas working for nickels, dimes and quarters an hour?
Some advocates for the disabled say Kansas and the rest of the nation would not tolerate such a wage for anyone else. Why, they ask, is it tolerated for people with developmental disabilities?
"It has become a sweatshop kind of thing," said Greg Jones of Parsons, director of advocacy for an independent living center. "We allow this stuff to happen right here under our very nose and we call it OK."
In Lawrence and across the state, hundreds of Kansans with developmental disabilities work each day. Oftentimes they're doing labor paid by the piece, completed in work centers or private businesses in the community.
And they're often doing it for a pittance.
One of the people for whom Jones is guardian and conservator in southeast Kansas has worked 40 hours for as little as $20.
Despite such situations, others who help people with disabilities say the work experiences improve the quality of life of disabled Kansans by teaching them job skills and helping them become a part of the community. And, they note, the work is done on a voluntary basis -- no one is forced to work.
Such work usually is organized and sponsored by community developmental disability organizations or other community groups that provide services to people with developmental disabilities.
In Lawrence, such services are provided by Cottonwood Inc., a nonprofit organization that has a thriving work program including a 45,000-square-foot work center where employees with developmental disabilities work on numerous contracts. At Cottonwood, the jobs include a contract from the U.S. Department of Defense to assemble military cargo tie-down straps. Work done under the five-year contract has won an award for excellence from the federal government.
Sharon Spratt, executive director at Cottonwood, said clients with developmental disabilities sought out job opportunities.
"It's a rewarding experience and something they tell us that they want," she said. "Having work available for the individuals is held in very high regard."
Cottonwood markets its program to outside businesses by emphasizing it has a well-trained and inexpensive work force.
To work or not
Federal law allows subminimum wage jobs for people with developmental disabilities.
Spratt said that if the workers had to be paid the minimum wage, "We wouldn't be able to be competitive. In a perfect world, it would be nice" to pay the minimum wage, Spratt said. She said she didn't know whether any of Cottonwood's clients were being paid as little as $20 per week, but added compensation is on a piece-rate basis.
The organization in Jones' area is called CLASS Ltd.
Jan Bolin, president of CLASS, defended the program, saying that if the minimum wage were required, many of the clients with developmental disabilities "wouldn't be able to work at all."
"A company would not hire them because the person may be working at 5 percent of the normal rate of production," she said. "I wish everyone who had a disability could work for higher wages out in the community, but the reality of it is some people cannot do that yet."
State Sen. Jim Barone, D-Frontenac, also defended CLASS.
"I'm personally familiar with the work that CLASS does, and they do tremendous work," he said.
State minimum wage
But Jones said if the individuals couldn't work in the marketplace, then the service provider should figure out some other productive activity for that person.
Jones also said the work system was set up in a way that the community service provider profited from the labor of their clients, while also receiving Medicaid funds from the state for helping people with disabilities live outside of institutional care.
"At the same time community service providers are selling the services of people with disabilities at a very substandard rate, these providers are bilking Medicaid waivers of Kansas a daily rate between $32 and $82.54 to keep these people out of their homes for five hours a day, as they perform demeaning tasks for little or no pay," Jones said.
But Spratt said money the community groups received from Medicaid were unrelated to the work pay; instead they are used to provide other kinds of assistance in helping clients live in the community.
One obstacle for Kansans with disabilities in entering the work force is that at $2.65 per hour, Kansas has the lowest state minimum wage in the nation, advocates for people with disabilities say.
'Coming to a head'
"Kansans with disabilities want to work and will work, but they need a fair and decent wage to make that transition attractive," said Shannon Jones, executive director of the Statewide Independent Living Council of Kansas.
Shannon Jones and groups representing organized labor and poor Kansans are supporting a bill that would increase the state minimum wage to $7.50 an hour by Jan. 1, 2007. The state minimum wage applies to about 24,000 employees not covered by the regulations of the federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Rocky Nichols, a former state legislator who now is executive director of Kansas Advocacy and Protective Services, said debate over work for people with developmental disabilities represented continuing changes in the way the law and society treated people with disabilities.
He said first the push was to get people with severe disabilities out of institutions. When that happened, so-called sheltered workshops emerged as an opportunity for people with developmental disabilities to learn job skills, earn money and become more independent.
But now some advocates say it's time to get rid of the workshops, saying they pay too low and that studies show that people with severe disabilities can thrive in regular jobs in the community if provided the proper support.
"The issue is coming to a head," Nichols said.