April 2024
A worker with a disability works in a stenciling job at a factory.

As disability rights advocates work to end sub-minimum wages, service providers are transforming how they assist people with disabilities to find meaningful work and participate in their communities.

In March, the Institute on Community Integration completed a statewide training program to help eight Minnesota organizations transition away from special certificates that allowed them to pay workers with disabilities (often people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities) below the minimum wage.

As part of the work, ICI’s communications team produced a series of Success Stories featuring Minnesota providers that have transformed their service models.

PHASE-Industries, one of the featured providers, gave up its minimum-wage exemption in August.

“That was a big benchmark logistically and symbolically, but it was one step in a larger project,” said Tim Schmutzer, chief executive at PHASE. “We’re starting to work with people who had been earning sub-minimum wages in facilities over a long period of time and now we’re seeing competitive, integrated employment placements within that group. To me that’s what this is all about. For people who never really got to explore and dream about what’s out there as a vocation, and had been used to and built habits around working in a licensed site under a provider, we knew that was where we wanted to see a change, and we are.”

The exemption typically allows service providers to create workshops that provide products sold to businesses and consumers. Originally designed as a way to provide some income to people who otherwise would not be hired in the competitive job market, today advocates say that advances in training and support services have made it possible for people with disabilities to pursue careers of their own choosing based on their skills and interests.

The organizations can opt to continue to receive technical assistance from ICI as they work to implement the new service models, which involve training staff how to prepare people with disabilities for competitive integrated employment, said ICI’s Danielle Mahoehney.

“Different providers are at different stages in this process, but it’s gratifying to see progress from each of them in the kind of transformational change that is required to go from sheltered workshops to competitive jobs,” she said.

ICI staff, along with colleagues at the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston, met with leadership and stakeholders at all levels of the service organizations for intensive, two-day site visits to evaluate challenges and strengths, Mahoehney said.

“We tried to understand each provider’s culture and service model and worked with teams to clarify goals, where they were going, and what support they needed from us,” she said. Monthly community-of-practice calls with the entire group of providers going through the transformation followed, along with individualized coaching sessions.

“It was great to see providers sharing with each other what they’re experiencing,” she said.

One example: Providers shared details of how they were communicating proactively with people with disabilities and their families about how their benefits could be affected by competitive wages. In the past, providers often simply referred these questions to government benefit offices.

“Families are understandably concerned about what employment will mean for benefits, so providers are starting to embed these conversations into the employment process,” Mahoehney said.

Along with hesitancy among families, getting provider staff members, group home staff, case managers, and direct support professionals on board with the change are significant challenges, she said. Even basic issues such as figuring out who has the responsibility for transportation to and from work are challenging.

“There are a lot of stumbling blocks, and I do sympathize, especially with small providers in rural areas because it can be hard to envision how this can work when you haven’t seen others do it successfully,” she said. “We’re not done by any means. Almost all service providers have a way to go to fully implement their vision.”

Schmutzer agrees.

“This is going to be a multi-year project, but it is working, and we’re moving forward with some next phases,” he said. PHASE has applied for a new grant that would help the organization hire highly skilled mentors to help further the training it has already provided.

“It took more than a year, but competitive integrated employment is now the core of what we do,” he said. “This new culture is embedded in everything we do.”

As with any major organizational change, of course, there are challenges. Last fall, staff vacancy rates jumped to nearly 20 percent, limiting the organization’s ability to do highly individualized career planning. Schmutzer and his staff have also had to boost its training support in order to help more staff earn certificates in career planning for people with disabilities.

“I’m OK with going slow,” he said. “Working with one person at a time is much more meaningful to the person being served. We refuse to this assembly-line style.”