Opinions differ on how to serve and work with those with developmental and physical disabilities. Does an organization work to find those individuals competitive employment, or do they create a center where those individuals learn job skills, receive a paycheck and then use the skills learned at a different place of employment?

A sheltered workshop known as Handi-Shop Inc. in Mexico requires staff to gauge how much Handi-Shop employees can do on contracted or piece work when compared to those without disabilities. All this data is reported to the Department of Labor. Sheltered workshops, through this data gathering, then can gauge pay rates for its employees.

This means through a provision known as 14(c) in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, Handi-Shop is allowed to pay based on performance and thus provide pay at less than minimum wage. The Raise the Wage Act passed by U.S. House in July would eliminate this 81-year-old provision, eventually raising minimum wage for all U.S. workers and ending subminimum wage.

"You do a time study every six months on the individuals. You set up a standard, average that out. Jobs are figured at different rates," Handi-Shop General Manager Martin Keller said earlier this month.

Handi-Shop employees make anywhere from $3 an hour to just over the current minimum wage of $8.60. Minimum wage in Missouri will increase to $9.45 in January. Employees of Handi-Shop, which averages around 63 to 65 employees, do piece work, contracted work on products from local companies, recycling and work in the Handi-Shop resale store.

The last action on the Raise the Wage Act was its addition to the U.S. Senate calendar July 22. It has not yet been assigned to a committee in the Senate. A similar bill was introduced in 2017, but also failed to reach the President Donald Trump's desk.

There are concerns for sheltered workshops in how they can best serve communities at higher pay scales. Keller is concerned for those who work at Handi-Shop with severe disabilities who are not as productive as other workers.

"We're struggling now to pay the bills because of recycling," Keller said, adding recycling output isn't covering its costs since the Handi-Shop is receiving less for what is sorts and sends to larger facilities. Around half of the Handi-Shop employees work in recycling, and because the shop is receiving less for its bales of recyclables, it's currently working at a loss of $1,000 to $7,000 per month. The income reduction for Handi-Shop from recycling is partially due to the Chinese tariffs since products, including recyclables aren't passing between the two country's borders.

The possibility of the eventual closure of sheltered workshops because of the Raise the Wage Act are slim, Keller said. The act is essentially stalled.

If it does pass, what would that mean for sheltered workshops?

In Saline and Pettis counties, they already have answered that question: change the business model for workshops. These counties did have workshops that were under the administration of the Center for Human Services, which also has operations in Audrain and Callaway counties.

The center started working more like an employment agency for those with disabilities rather than having a separate operation that kept workers with disabilities out of the competitive employment market while they received job training.

Mexico's Handi-Shop also has found jobs for its employees outside of its sphere, Keller said. The shop, though, is there for them if a job outside of Handi-Shop does not work out, he added.

Saline and Pettis eventually closed the workshops due to Center for Human Services finding competitive employment for those it served.

"We did not set out to shut down our sheltered workshops," Center for Human Services Director Ann Graff said. "Back in 2011, I asked a question of my employment director, 'How many people have left the workshop in the last year and have moved out into employment out in the community?'"

That number was zero. The intention of sheltered workshops is to give people with disabilities job skills and then they join an outside workforce, especially if they were making more than minimum wage as workshop employees.

So, the center put together a task force and spent the next several years focusing on community employment. "We hired a business developer, who their job was to go out and find connections for people to work in the community," Graff said.

The center had nine employees working one recycling contract for Con-Agra Foods when it closed its Saline County workshop sometime in 2018. The contract was not renegotiable and so the center worked on placing those nine employees into community jobs.

"They are all working in the community. Several of those folks are employed full time," Graff said. "What we're finding is everybody that is being served out in the community seems to be happy, they're successful and our employers really have embraced [these employees]."

Graff recognizes that it took time to reach this point, around seven years, which is around the same timeframe for yearly minimum wage raises in the federal Raise the Wage Act.

"What we did was instead of saying, 'We're going to shut our workshop down,' we said, 'We're going to emphasize community employment,’" Graff said.

cdunlap@gatehousemedia.com