The state’s sheltered workshop program will continue after participants and their families rallied the Legislature to keep it in place as an option for adults with disabilities to do meaningful paid jobs in safe and supportive workplaces despite their challenges.
Earlier this year, the New Jersey Department of Human Services’ Division of Developmental Disabilities announced plans to begin phasing out and defunding sheltered workshops, including a program at the nonprofit Burlington County Occupational Training Center in Burlington Township, in favor of reformed and expanded supportive work programs that would focus on moving the population into competitive employment in the community.
The reform was in keeping with New Jersey’s commitment as an “Employment First” state that recognizes that “competitive employment in the general workforce is the first and preferred post-education outcome for people with any type of disability.” While providers, including the OTC, applaud the shift in focus and would still deliver the services, they argued that the state shouldn’t eliminate all other options.
Under the new state budget, passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Chris Christie late last month, the sheltered workshop programs will remain and be transferred to the Department of Labor’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services.
The division previously administered the $7 million program, officials said. It funds about 830 of the nearly 1,000 consumers in sheltered workshops across the state, officials have said.
“The Legislature was unanimously behind us, and the deal to transfer the program back to the Labor Department was made,” said Joseph Bender, executive director of the local Occupational Training Center, one of 28 in the state. “We are still under DDD right now, and there is money in the budget for that. But they are preparing the transition, and the program will continue without disruption.”
The plan to defund the sheltered workshops immediately met with opposition from advocates, program participants and their families in Burlington County and elsewhere in the state. About 160 workers would have been affected in the county’s OTC program.
The issue of sheltered workshops, including fair pay and meeting the needs of workers with developmental disabilities, is part of a continuing national debate.
The Division of Developmental Disabilities’ goal was to place clients in jobs in local communities, working with and among their non-disabled peers for a competitive wage. State officials said workers with disabilities deserve more than sub-minimum wage, tucked away from the community and competitive employment, and expressed concerns that sheltered workshops were keeping individuals from reaching their full potential.
Officials cited a recent report by the Institute for Community Inclusion that indicates only 14 percent of the state’s DDD clients in such programs ever move to other employment, about 6 percent below the already-low national average.
Furthermore, the state said Medicaid will no longer fund vocational services in sheltered workshop settings. In addition, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division has been increasingly vocal regarding the obligation of states to support individuals to succeed in community employment.
Supporters of the program, however, argued that it is the “over-reliance” on sheltered workshops that is the concern to the Department of Justice, but that landmark Supreme Court rulings clearly state there is a place for these programs as an option for disabled workers.
“It would have been easy for DDD to trade these programs for activities with no real paid work, but every single one of our folks said no. They understand the distinction of doing work and receiving a paycheck. They are grateful the Legislature saved their work. … It’s their choice to work, and that’s what we wanted to preserve, not have someone else dictate to them what was in their best interest,” Bender said.
The programs found bipartisan support from legislators from Burlington County, with the OTC noting the efforts of Sens. Diane Allen, R-7th of Edgewater Park, and Dawn Marie Addiego, R-8th of Evesham, and Assemblymen Chris Brown, R-8th of Evesham, and Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, who was a strong advocate on the Assembly Budget Committee.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd of West Deptford, was also an integral part in brokering the transfer and saving the program, Bender said.
Rehabilitation services, including the workshops, must have a work level of under 20 percent of a worker of standard ability. These employees, based on their work level, can be paid below minimum wage.
Work at the Burlington Township OTC can include sorting hangers, folding and boxing papers, assembling and packaging pens and DNA kits, and working in the fabric shop under the close supervision of OTC staff.
Supporters contend that even the work and the paychecks are just part of a larger program that also focuses on helping individuals reach goals, including increasing attention span, motor and interpersonal skills, and socialization. Many said a competitive workplace, even with support, was not a realistic goal, noting that those who can move into those workplaces do so.
“The national debate will continue,” Bender said. “But here in New Jersey, the state did the right thing.”