Over the faint sound of a group drum circle in the next room, dozens of adults with developmental disabilities worked quietly at long, colorful tables to fulfill a production contract by a local shaving oil company. Some filled bottles with the oil, while others used a hot air gun to seal the plastic packaging. One dexterously threaded small sample packets into brochures. A few roamed the tables overseeing the work.
All the workers — verbal or nonverbal, blind or seeing — worked for a piece rate far below that of minimum wage, owing to a 1938 law that carved out exceptions for individuals with disabilities. National estimates peg the average effective wage for these workers at little more than $3.30 an hour.
But the fate of workshops like this one — San Antonio’s Mission Road Developmental Center, one of the largest in the country — are in question, as federal and state lawmakers have in recent years whittled down the exemptions under which employers can pay below minimum wage.
A recent report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights argues the exemption should be phased out entirely because these “sheltered workshops,” as they are called, trap workers in “exploitative and discriminatory” job programs. And disability-rights advocates say the program limits the potential of these workers with special needs.
Meanwhile nonprofit organizations like Mission Road and some families argue that eliminating these sheltered workshops would take a needed option away from the many adults who are happy to be there — especially those whose disabilities would be especially challenging for general employment.
Some 2,500 workers in Texas are paid subminimum wages at these sheltered workshops, including nearly 400 in San Antonio.
Stuck in the mud
James Meadours, president of the disabilities civil rights group Texas Advocates, said sheltered workshops tend to suffocate possibilities for their workers.
“People get stuck in the mud there,” he said. “They think they can’t do something else in the community. They don’t know what’s out there.”
Meadours, who has an intellectual disability, worked at a workshop in Oklahoma for seven years, where he watered plants for an effective wage of 50 cents an hour. It took him a year to afford a bus ticket to Colorado to visit his aunt and uncle, he said.
Meadours left the workshop in 1990 and found himself free to make mistakes and to learn from them. He accepted without question the first job he was offered, working at a cafeteria under a boss he described as disrespectful and not understanding of his condition. He left that job after a few months without any other work lined up, spending another half year without employment. His next job, at a clothing store, brought him “five wonderful years” under a supportive boss. His above-minimum wages there allowed him to move out of his group home and find his own apartment.
Now living in San Antonio near the Blue Star Complex, he recently celebrated his 30th year of living in his own place, a far cry from the group home he once lived in. “I’m very proud of that,” he said.
Meadours’ journey parallels a development in how governments treat their citizens with disabilities. In 1990, the same year he left his workshop, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law, a landmark civil rights legislation that made disabilities a protected class. Dennis Borel, executive director for the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, said the 1938 law establishing the subminimum wage belongs to an earlier and less enlightened era, when governments thought the best approach was to isolate those with developmental disabilities, rather than provide individualized support.
“That was a time when it was still legal to discriminate based on a person’s disability,” he said.
His organization supported a successful 2019 bill in the Texas Legislature, authored by state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) and state Rep. John Raney (R-College Station), that eliminated the subminimum wage for state contractors.
The bill dovetailed with efforts in other states, as well as moves on the federal level. This past week, the Biden administration announced commitments to eliminate the subminimum wage for workers with disabilities. The announcement follows an unsuccessful effort in Congress last year to repeal the 1938 law.
Mission Road says participation in its workshops is a matter of choice.
“Some of our clients couldn’t do a minimum-wage job,” said Lora Butler, Mission Road Developmental Center’s executive director. “This way, they can get a paycheck, and they can say they go to work. It gives them purpose and confidence.”
Mission Road holds certifications for 224 workers to be paid subminimum wages at its workshop, making it the second-largest employer of its kind in Texas.
But leaders at the organization see themselves not as employers but, rather, service providers, whose workshop is one of many programs available to their clients alongside housing, day care and life skills training. The wages it pays workers are considered by the IRS to be “therapeutic pay.”
Though the wages are paid for by the production contracts from local companies, a majority of the nonprofit’s $17 million in revenue in 2020 came from state funding for these programs, including the workshop, according to nonprofit filings.
Butler calls the workshop a “first step to getting a job,” allowing their clients to experience a low-stress, flexible work environment. There are no production quotas, no discipline for absenteeism or tardiness and no limits on work breaks.
The Texas Workforce Commission checks in with workers at least once a year — twice for younger workers — to ask if they want help finding a job in the broader community, which Mission Road also provides support services for. Butler said around two-thirds choose to stay in the sheltered workshop.
One worker, Gary Burrough, 50, has worked there for years, first entering Mission Road’s care when he was 19 years old. He once worked a regular job, program directors say, but since then has chosen to work exclusively at the workshop. “This is the place I like best,” he said. “All my friends are here.”
The system isn’t perfect. Recently there was a period in which some workers started at the workshop without first having been consulted by the Texas Workforce Commission on their employment options. In 2020, the Department of Labor ordered Mission Road to reimburse 27 workers a total of roughly $3,600 in back pay, retroactively enforcing the hourly minimum wage for that period.
An alternative for some
Endeavors Unlimited, like Mission Road, is a Texas-based nonprofit employing workers with developmental disabilities. But it pays its workers wages between $13.50 to nearly $16 an hour depending on the job. And like Mission Road, it also provides housing, life skills training and job supportive services.
“There has to be a future beyond [the subminimum wage] that is more integrated,” said Elique Guerra, Endeavors Unlimited’s program director. “And to be integrated, you have to be competitive with salaries.”
He said if the point is to instill pride in these individuals and give them a pathway to financial independence, only a competitive salary can do that.
The 40 or so workers it employs across Texas have a variety of disabilities, but they compete for landscaping and custodial contracts against other private employers, to maintain and beautify hundreds of acres or to clean and disinfect large government buildings.
Far from a liability, the unique structure of their teams attracts repeat customers, said James Bower, a regional manager, such as systems that help its workers with time management.
The result is a loyal and consistent workforce, Bower said. “We show people day by day what people with disabilities can do.”
“I struggle with IDD every day,” Bower said, using a catch-all term that stands for intellectual and developmental disabilities. “It’s not stopped me from going to the highest point I can go.”