- Associated Press - Saturday, September 26, 2015

BEND, Ore. (AP) - At age 43, Joseph Krassow is about a year into his first job with a private, for-profit enterprise.

He spends two mornings a week doing clerical and light janitorial tasks for Barrett Business Services Inc., a back-office support company on the west side of Bend.

Krassow has autism, and he said the job is a good fit with his talents, which include organization and math. He enjoys it, too. “We have a pleasant staff here,” he said, while alphabetizing a file drawer.

Disability-rights advocates say many people like Krassow wouldn’t have a competitive wage job if it weren’t for new requirements brought about by a 2012 class-action lawsuit against the state of Oregon over violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The U.S. Justice Department, which joined the suit in 2013, announced a proposed settlement agreement on Sept. 8 that means people with intellectual and developmental disabilities will no longer be directed to a segregated location where they mainly interact with disabled peers and earn less than minimum wage. These are commonly referred to as sheltered workshops.

Oregon is already in the process of transforming its employment support system for disabled people and is committed to changes over the next seven years that will affect an estimated 7,000 people, according to the settlement. Already, dozens of high school students and working adults in Central Oregon are getting individualized services to help them find jobs in the community. Many more are working directly for support organizations like Opportunity Foundation of Central Oregon and Abilitree, which run enterprises like thrift shops and janitorial services.

Sheltered workshops still exist, but under terms of the settlement, they closed to new entrants on July 1.

Opportunity Foundation in Redmond was the largest operator of sheltered workshops in the region, running a wood mill and some light assembly operations for local companies.

The wood mill has already been leased to a private company, Barnwood Industries, and current employees who wanted to continue doing that work now work for Barnwood, Executive Director Seth Johnson said. The assembly operations will continue, but instead of taking place in Opportunity Foundation’s facility, the work will be done at the for-profit company’s site.

“At this point we’re almost out of the sheltered workshop business,” Johnson said.

The transition has its drawbacks, however. People who in the past might have gone to a sheltered workshop can now take advantage of day services, where they take field trips or volunteer in the community. Johnson said Oregon isn’t paying enough to cover the support services for those people, who are more severely disabled and need more help with medical and behavioral issues.

The rate structure assumes that support staff earn an average of $10.60 per hour, but Opportunity Foundation needs to provide health insurance and retirement benefits in order to recruit those people, Johnson said. Disability-support agencies across the state are in the midst of a staffing crisis, he said. “There’s a potential for several unintended and negative consequences for the people we support,” he said.

Oregon Sen. Sara Gelser, an advocate for the new model, believes it will be cost-effective in the long run. Oregon is in the first wave of states to phase out sheltered workshops, but soon, there won’t be a choice. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has ruled that all services must be provided in an integrated setting, and sheltered workshops don’t meet that definition. States have until March 2019 to come into compliance.

“The great thing about this transition is that it’s gradual,” Gelser said.

Oregon restructured Medicaid-funded reimbursement rates so that more of the roughly $30 million spent each year goes to supporting individuals and small groups in regular job settings. Opportunity Foundation and Abilitree in Bend pay staff members to help disabled people find suitable jobs, and then support them according to their needs.

Krassow, for example, needs a ride to BBSI from Opportunity Foundation’s Bend thrift store, where he works 25 hours a week as a cashier. Job coach Andrea McGuire gives him a lift, and she makes sure he has his watch and a charged cell phone and checks in with his supervisor. She also helps him learn new tasks that might come up.

Krassow’s supervisor, Heather McGuire, said the initial plan was simply to have someone stuff payroll envelopes. He took on extra duties after the office janitor quit. As McGuire learns more about his skills, she has added duties.

Others who work at BBSI had experience employing people with disabilities, but the fact that Opportunity Foundation matched Krassow’s skills with the office’s needs was crucial, she said.

For Krassow, who lives on his own, the new job supports one of his life goals, which he said was “to get out of the house.”

“In order to get out of the house, I had to get a job I liked,” he said.

Opportunity Foundation has always helped clients find jobs in the community, but Oregon’s new reimbursement rates make it financially viable, Johnson said. The number of people finding jobs jumped significantly, from 16 last year to 34 so far this year, he said.

Abilitree began emphasizing individual job placement at least five years ago, Executive Director Tim Johnson said. “Had the lawsuit not happened, we probably wouldn’t have put as much energy and effort into it,” he said.

At one time, sheltered workshops were considered the best way to ensure that disabled people led productive lives. The first one was set up in 1840 by Perkins Institute for the Blind in Massachusetts, and the jobs were “sheltered” from free-market competition, according to the National Disability Rights Network. Later, the 1938 Federal Labor Standards Act included an exemption to the minimum wage requirement for disabled people, though the NDRN says that was intended to encourage the employment of disabled veterans in manufacturing.

To this day, sheltered workshop operators, most of which are nonprofit, must conduct detailed productivity studies in order to obtain a certificate from the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division that allows them to pay less than minimum wage. About 3,900 people in Oregon have been through sheltered workshops since 2012, and the average wage, as of March 2013, was $3.72 per hour.

Minimum wage, which in Oregon is $9.25 per hour, is still not a guarantee for disabled workers.

Opportunity Foundation’s thrift stores in Madras, Redmond and Bend employ 120 to 150 supported clients, Johnson said. Their wages range from the state minimum to much less. It depends on how much care and support they need, he said. The not-for-profit has a goal of paying at least minimum wage to everyone, Johnson said. “If we can find a way to do that, we will,” he said.

Thrift stores caught a break when the state of Oregon ruled that because they allow disabled people to interact with the general public, they won’t be considered sheltered workshops, and can continue to accept new participants. They’re called “community path to employment” and are supposed to serve as a training ground for typical work.

Abilitree still has 65 to 75 people who may participate in sheltered workshop-style jobs when they’re not doing other activities like exercise programs and outings, Tim Johnson said. As of July 1, all of Abilitree’s sheltered workers earn minimum wage.

Abilitree would like to have that work, which usually involves packaging or assembly, take place at the customers’ place of business, he said. In the meantime, the sheltered workshops will continue. “The reality is the state is not going to hang people out to dry, just send them all home, and that’s been the big fear,” he said.

Many of the changes that Oregon is making are aimed at young people entering the workforce for the first time. Another provision of the settlement is that Oregon schools will not be allowed to model sheltered workshop-type activities in classes with disabled students. Now they have access to job-exploration services. Gelser, a Democrat from Corvallis, has a 20-year-old son who’s doing job discovery now. “I’m just so glad he has the opportunity to do that,” she said. “He definitely is in the population that would’ve been shuttled into a sheltered workshop.”

Some families aren’t comfortable sending their loved ones with disabilities to work in the wider world, said Dianna Hansen, executive director of the Central Oregon Disability Support Network. But the vast majority want more choices for their kids, and they ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Hansen said her daughter, Victoria, an 11-year-old who has Down Syndrome, wants to be a chef.

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