If you bag the swag, you should make real cash

March 31, 2019

People with disabilities need options to become employed. National vocational programs allow paying people on levels of “productivity.”

Citizens with disabilities who want to work can and should work. Students and adults with disabilities can be offered curricula and training appropriate to enable them to sustain some level of employment. It is not expensive, just because the students happen to have disabilities.

People paid less than minimum wage making anything, even swag bags for movie stars, are exploited. This is model is nothing more than an old-school sheltered workshop. The governor is aware of the value of supported employment and entrepreneurial models paying people with disabilities minimum wage or better. I am hopeful that she will stop all sheltered workshops in New Mexico.

A sheltered workshop is a building used to provide a place for persons primarily with intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy and autism to participate in a group activity on a daily basis. The activity is called “work.” It is not real work. It exploits the people who are relegated to attend and does little to enable them to move into a job that pays minimum wage or better.

Most sheltered workshops pay an average of 36 cents per hour. The traditional workshop base subminimum wage on “productivity levels.” All of the people in a shelter workshop have disabilities with the exception of management, who are paid competitively. It is a broken system in an economy starving for employees. The premise is a “nonprofit” charity is given philanthropic and government subsidies.

Old-school philanthropy professes the sheltered workshop model to be effective. It keeps parents from worrying about what their offspring will do. It gives them the false sense of security that no one will be ridiculed or bullied. It uses the fear factor of losing benefits and other government subsidies. This is not true.

Faux employment pays people less than minimum wage, segregates people with disabilities to a stagnant skill set while satisfying state vocational requirements for funding and placates parents’ fears of their children being left home alone. Odious scare tactics of losing benefits, combined with the possibility of their offspring facing potential ridicule by society, fuels this bleak vision. This patronizing, self-perpetuating erroneous approach to meaningless activities must be replaced with real work and real pay.

We have developed real businesses for real work. Support for business development in New Mexico needs to be considered. There is a great need for this model. We can template entrepreneurial businesses in Santa Fe or Albuquerque when the state chooses to partner with us.

Entrepreneurial businesses managed as for-profit entities in which persons with disabilities are compensated at minimum wage or better have proven to be effective on a pilot basis. We do this in Eastern states. It can be replicated easily. Analysis supports people with significant levels of disabilities working in flower stores or within an office concierge and rental setting, and people with disabilities working within those businesses make minimum wage or better. Robust sales result, too.

We have owned a flower store and four commercial office buildings employing persons with disabilities in meaningful, supported employment paradigms. We will open a new one in Princeton, N.J. Every person is in an integrated setting, make minimum wage or better and have a chance for career advancement. All the students with disabilities will be compensated apprentices.

People with disabilities need to be employed. They need to forge relationships and engage with others socially. People with disabilities need to be able to spend part of their day working. We have been doing this for 30 years. It works and can have greater success with one-time supports.

Robert Stack is founder and president of Community Options in Princeton, N.J.