Public Policy |

Justice Department Looks at Possible ADA Violations by Sheltered Workshops  

By: Nithya Venkat and Zoey Doto (The Arc Minnesota Policy Team) 

On October 31st, 2023, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) released a 13-page document outlining clarifications for how the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) integration mandate ought to be applied. This statement warns services such as sheltered workshops or facilitated day-programs of their potential non-compliance with ADA regulations. Many disabled people spend most of their time in these settings, increasing their risk of being segregated from their peers without disabilities and the rest of their communities. Under the ADA and the Olmstead decision, service providers have an obligation to offer the most integrated setting possible to their disabled community members. The failure to support meaningful inclusion in the most integrated setting will result in the community being deprived of the talents, skills, and contributions these individuals can provide.  

The DOJ explains that sheltered workshops offer little to no career advancement opportunities for disabled workers, as they are often assigned manual and repetitive tasks. Due to the type of labor disabled workers are assigned, employers unfairly justify paying them subminimum wages (SMW). SMW amounts can be as little as a few cents. Employers can pay disabled workers SMW under Section 14(c) of Fair Labor Standards Act. The practice of paying SMW to people with disabilities is exploitative as it conveys that we [employers] do not value their [disabled workers] work enough to pay even the minimum of what is legally acceptable to pay others”. Allowing SMW policies to remain in place continues the perpetuation of undervaluing the societal contributions of people with disabilities in our communities.  

Banning SMW and offering disabled workers appropriate integrated employment options are the next steps toward achieving economic equity for people with disabilities. States that fail to offer integrated options to their disabled community members may in non-compliance with the ADA. People with disabilities have a right to know what integrated options are available to them and the right to decide to participate in the option that is the most appropriate for them. By providing people with disabilities with information about all integrated options, we begin to transition from a segregated society to an integrated one where we can grant all people full agency to choose the best employment option where they can achieve the most success. The opportunity to be fairly employed and compensated allows people with disabilities to fully contribute to and be included in society. 

According to the 2021 Current Population Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people with disabilities are less likely to be in the labor force and are more likely to be unemployed compared to those without disabilities. This trend is consistent across age and racial groups for people with disabilities. These statistics demonstrate that there is still a need to more equitably integrate people with disabilities into employment opportunities in the United States.  

In the 2023 legislative session, The Arc Minnesota was successful in passing legislation that implemented recommendations of Task Force on Eliminating Subminimum Wages except for the policy decision to phase out the subminimum wage. However, the groundwork has been laid for completing this by having these funding recommendations enacted:  

  • Establishes a Technical Assistance Center to assist providers to transition away from subminimum wage employment  
  • Training for case managers and changes to the MnCHOICES assessment to ensure people are being offered true informed choice in employment and services to support with employment goals 
  • Grants to lead agencies to build capacity in supporting people with competitive integrated employment options 
  • Funding for reporting on people in Minnesota being paid subminimum wage to track employment outcomes 

The Arc Minnesota maintains that the practices of having segregated workspaces and the provision of SMW are discriminatory toward people with disabilities. We remain steadfast in our fight against these systems at the state and federal level. We will continue this effort to end the SMW in 2024. Once people with disabilities are offered integrated workspaces and fair compensation, they are granted the opportunity to be included in their communities and gain financial independence– a core tenant of equal opportunity.