Earlier this week, we published a story about sheltered workshops in Missouri — facilities where it’s legal to pay employees less than the minimum wage because they have intellectual, developmental or physical disabilities. More than 5,000 disabled adults work in Missouri’s sheltered workshops, some earning less than $1 per hour.
Across the country, disability rights advocates have lamented these facilities and their low wages, calling them discriminatory and exploitative. At least 14 states have banned subminimum wages, and advocates are ramping up pressure on the federal government to repeal the more than 80-year-old law authorizing them nationwide.
So when my reporting for this story got underway in April — part of a yearlong collaboration between The Kansas City Beacon and ProPublica — I expected to hear similar sentiments in Missouri.
Instead, one of my early findings surprised me: Disabled adults and their families in Missouri seemed to strongly support sheltered workshops. They didn’t focus on the low pay or the dearth of other opportunities. Most said they were simply grateful for the jobs that the facilities offered.
This led my editors and me to wonder: Do we even have a story to tell here, if sheltered workshop employees themselves did not see any problems with their situation?
Instead of turning away from the story, we decided to dive deeper. We began an outreach effort to connect with as many sheltered workshop employees and their families as possible, so we could better understand their sentiments and find out if they saw any downsides to working with such low pay.
To do this well, we needed to make our outreach accessible to a community with diverse abilities. We knew that some sheltered workshop employees might not have access to computers and that others could be visually impaired or have difficulty understanding our questions.
I worked with ProPublica engagement reporter Maryam Jameel to come up with a few solutions. The first was to consult a plain-language translator — an expert in writing clear and concise messages for audiences with intellectual or developmental disabilities — and have her develop a plain-language version of our outreach questions. (We also published a plain-language version of our resulting story.)
Next, we talked to several advocates, some of whom are disabled themselves, about additional ways to spread the word. To connect with people who are visually impaired or otherwise unable to read our questions, we included an option for people to call and leave voicemails with their thoughts. As a no-tech option, we crafted a much smaller printout version of our questions. I handed the copies out to sheltered workshop employees as I visited these facilities and asked my sources to share them among their networks.
The responses came flowing in. We heard from more than 90 people, most of them sheltered workshop employees and their families. And their responses dovetailed with what I had heard back in April: strong support of sheltered workshops.
The respondents told me that they would be devastated if their sheltered workshops were forced to shut down. Some family members even bypassed our outreach questions and instead sent in letters expressing opposition to any changes to the federal subminimum wage law or requesting that sheltered workshops remain open in the state. A few respondents later told me that they were encouraged to respond by their sheltered workshop managers. One sheltered workshop employee said she and her coworkers were given time at work to answer our questions online.
“This job has given people with disabilities a chance to work instead of being stuck at home,” one parent of a sheltered workshop employee wrote.
As I kept following up with the respondents, I recognized a common thread: Many felt that their choice wasn’t between sheltered workshops and regular jobs, but rather between sheltered workshops and nothing at all.
Some said sheltered workshops provided a safe place for their family members to spend their days with peers and find a sense of purpose. Others said their loved ones had previously held a regular job or could handle the demands of one, but hurdles like workplace discrimination ultimately led them to believe sheltered workshops were the only realistic option.
“There’s lots of things that can be potential barriers for people working in regular competitive employment,” said Robin Prado, the mother of a sheltered workshop employee. She said her daughter had previously spent a couple of weeks working at a local library but was fired when she didn’t pick up on her training quickly enough — a problem she believes could have been solved with a little additional help.
“I didn’t really feel like we had a lot of support,” Prado said.
A current sheltered workshop employee expressed similar feelings, saying she was “afraid of going back” to a regular job. “I’ve tried jobs on the outside, and this is the first job where I feel really supported by people,” she said.
It was clear to me that the respondents saw no real alternatives in Missouri — but it doesn’t have to be this way. I talked with several experts and advocates, including Steven Schwartz, legal director for the Center for Public Representation, who told me that many other states have proven that disabled adults can successfully move into the regular workforce. To help them with the transition, these states have been directing more funding toward breaking down the kinds of barriers that Missouri’s sheltered workshop employees and their families spoke to me about.
Missouri, however, does little to help sheltered workshop employees make that move — even though getting disabled workers ready for the regular workforce is the goal behind the federal law authorizing subminimum wages. What’s more, state officials told me that they would be unconcerned if sheltered workshop employees in Missouri do not “graduate” to the regular workforce for years, or even decades, because they view the state’s sheltered workshops as employment programs rather than stepping stones to regular jobs.
Ultimately, we decided that there was a story to tell about sheltered workshops in Missouri: The seemingly widespread support among sheltered workshop employees and their families masked the failure of the state to provide them with meaningful employment options.
You can read more about what we found in the full story. We will continue reporting on sheltered workshops in Missouri, so please share our outreach questions, our phone number and the plain-language story with anyone you think would like to get in touch with us.