Change on the Horizon for Oregon’s Disabled Workers: New Hope, Expectations, and Challenges

On April 10th, Governor Kitzhaber signed Executive Order 13-04, which aggressively changes policy regarding employment of workers with I/DD (intellectual/developmental disabilities). Starting July 1st, the “inclusive” employment model will be supported, financially and logistically, by state government. It’s a reaction to federal lawsuit Lane vs. Kitzhaber, brought about with support of Disability Rights Oregon, which accuses Oregon of violating Americans With Disabilities Act for funding sheltered workshops, which “segregate” disabled workers from mainstream employment.

Sarah works at B & J Bookbinding with manager Deb.
Sarah works at B & J Bookbinding with manager Deb.

The inclusive work model for people with I/DD means working, not alongside other I/DD folks, but in a mainstream work environment alongside employees without I/DD. The previous work model, the sheltered workshop—where a business employed almost entirely workers with I/DD, excepting people in supervisory and managerial positions—will be phased out over the next nine years, thanks to the new order. While the order goes into action on July 1st, the funding and logistics of enacting it won’t necessarily be ironed out until October. The results of Lane vs. Kitzhaber may alter state policy even more than already planned. Changes so far: Oregon now has a “Statewide Employment Coordinator for People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities” Mike Maley, and financially, funding of 30-40 million has been bandied around; but at this time, there are still plenty of questions—especially from those whose lives are touched by I/DD.

Cornerstone Associates, a local non-profit which formed in 2001 with the mission of providing employment opportunities for people with I/DD, worry how these changes will affect their many businesses which do not fit cleanly into either the sheltered workshop or inclusive workplace categories, and especially how it will affect employment opportunities for those with more severe I/DD—

Chris and Aaron work together at Cornerstone Wood Products.
Chris and Aaron work together at Cornerstone Wood Products.

who make up a large part of their workforce. “That’s why Cornerstone exists—for the people with more support needs,” says Naomi Burnham, Cornerstone’s support services manager. “We know from Washington State. They shut down all of their sheltered workshops about 8 or 9 years ago. They are considered 100% supported employment in the community. But what happened is that the 20% of folks who have community jobs are that higher level of functioning. The [other] 80%, that most of our folks are going to fall into, are sitting at home without much to do. That’s the piece that we don’t want to see happen, and that’s where this push from the governor can lead.”

Cornerstone specializes in the “small business community model”—think Taylor Street Ovens, or B & J Bookbinding—where a small population of workers with I/DD work up to 25 hours per week, and make up the bulk of the business’s workforce. It looks like the order will protect that employment model (see definition I.9 on page 4), but consider the national push to ensure minimum wage for workers with I/DD, and Cornerstone is facing a challenge. That’s right: the hubbub about Goodwill underpaying their disabled employees last year—while unique in its monstrous scale (CEOs earning hundreds of thousands of dollars compared to some workers earning literal pennies per hour)—failed to address that paying disabled workers according to their productivity—which often means below prevailing wage–is standard practice. It’s argued that by paying a wage commensurate with production, businesses that employ disabled workers with lower productivity are able to break even. Cornerstone employees typically earn anywhere from $2.50-$14 per hour. “The person that’s being paid $2.50 is probably working at a 30% productivity; so your product gains all that cost,” explains Burnham.

Melissa works at B & J Bookbinding.
Melissa works at B & J Bookbinding.

“I’ve been in this business for 25 years and you periodically go through these cycles,” she adds. “This one is different in the fact that we have both the federal government and the state governments making the push for folks with disabilities. We are all for that; that’s why we’re here,” but Burnham is concerned that workers with lower productivity won’t be hired by mainstream businesses. “[The order is] leaving a whole bunch of people out [the more severely disabled] who don’t have a voice.”

Robin de la Mora, founder of Collaborative Employment Innovations, specializes in job matchmaking for people with I/DD who want to work. She only considers jobs that pay at least minimum wage for her clients. “[Time study/productivity method] is not what I would want for my sister who has a developmental disability, and it’s not what she’s had. In some jobs she has worked at 110% productivity, in some jobs she hasn’t; it’s dependent on the job. And that’s what we focus on: it’s the strengths and the capacities and preferences of the people that we are supporting, trying to match them up.”

While Burnham is in favor of the inclusive model for higher-functioning workers, she feels that Cornerstone’s community small business model still has a role to play in preparing people with I/DD for the mainstream workplace. “That’s one of the real plusses to our system, behaviorally. There may have some mental health issues that make it pretty dicey for them to be out without a lot of support; there may be some legal reasons why some of these people can’t be out in the community. We can provide the first step with that feeling of inclusion here. The work habits; this is how you act on the job. You don’t just walk out when you feel like it, or get mad and throw things down. So the more we can move the folks out into the community, there’s just that holistic wellbeing people get from being a part of their community.” She is frustrated by the current lack of funding of the new executive order. “The way we’re set up, you can manage a small group of folks for the same amount of money that it would take one person in the community. And the money’s not there.”

Eric cuts wood to size.
Eric cuts wood to size.

De la Mora hopes employers will be open to customizing jobs suitable for workers with I/DD. Her business approaches matchmaking by “…look[ing] at ways for the employer to increase their productivity by picking out some entry level tasks of a professional wage position, and putting those aside for an entry level worker to work [a few] hours a day.”

The Order’s goal is a noble one; but to ensure every person with I/DD who wants to work can work may require more funding than Oregon is willing to shell out. What about workers who require a full-time care person?  What about potential workers who are in the criminal system? More importantly: the economy is still tight; what if the jobs aren’t there? The ultimate goal is to have people with I/DD functioning as productive members of not only society, but of the mainstream workforce. Forwarding progress toward that goal is commendable; we can only hope that the governor’s order, and the results of the lawsuit, doesn’t misguidedly reduce employment options. If the general population—and especially mainstream employers—are not willing to hire workers with I/DD, these orders and lawsuits won’t be effective.

The ability of many people with I/DD to contribute positively to the workforce is unquestioned by both Burnham and de la Mora, as long as the workers are in positions that suit their individual strengths and weaknesses. So what’s the problem? “I think a lot of people are on board for competitive employment and inclusive work places,” de la Mora explains. “But I think the general population may not. And that’s where we find the barriers: it’s a lack of awareness.” She affirms: “There is a place for everyone in the workforce; we just have to help them find it.”

“I think it’s ok to say ‘I’m not comfortable with this, but I want to be,’” she adds.

“That’s only going to happen if people with disabilities are in the community inclusively.”

Ready to knock down some barriers, Corvallis?

Read Governor Kitzhaber’s Order here:

By Mica Habarad

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1 thought on “Change on the Horizon for Oregon’s Disabled Workers: New Hope, Expectations, and Challenges

  1. Paying only disabled workers commensurate to their productivity is still discrimination against an entire class of people. There are plenty of people without disabilities that work at a 30% productivity rate. Likewise, as the article points out, there are plenty of people with disabilities that exceed a 110% productivity rate in their job. It’s about finding the right fit for everyone. I fail to see how treating people with disabilities as a special, exceptional class is legal or even helpful.

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