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One weekday morning in July, Kerstie Bramlet was at her workstation inside the Warren County Sheltered Workshop near St. Louis, Missouri, putting plastic labels on rabbit-meat dog chews one by one.
The 30-year-old, who wore a St. Louis Cardinals shirt and a blue-and-white tie-dye hat, is autistic and has intellectual disabilities. She was on dog-chew assignment that day with a dozen or so coworkers, who are also disabled. As they chatted excitedly about an upcoming bocce ball tournament — part of a local Special Olympics event — Bramlet and her coworkers formed an assembly line of sorts, some counting the dog chews using a gridded piece of paper to ensure they reached the right total before handing them off to a supervisor for shrink-wrapping.
Eventually, a six-pack of the dog chews would be sold on Amazon for $14.99.
For this work, Bramlet earns $1.50 an hour. It’s legal to pay her such a low rate because she works at what is known as a sheltered workshop, which can pay subminimum wages to disabled workers like her under a federal law enacted more than 80 years ago. At that rate, if Bramlet kept a full-time schedule working 40 hours a week and took no time off, she’d earn $3,120 a year, less than a quarter of the federal poverty level.
By design, employment in sheltered workshops is supposed to be a temporary measure — a training process to allow disabled adults to transition into the regular workforce.
But Bramlet, who lives with her 49-year-old mother, has been working at the Warren County Sheltered Workshop off and on since 2014, and her long tenure is not uncommon in Missouri.
An investigation by The Kansas City Beacon and ProPublica found that, as of June 30, the vast majority of the more than 5,000 disabled adults employed at Missouri’s 97 sheltered workshop locations have been there for years. The news organizations’ analysis of employment data shows that nearly 45% of the employees have worked at the facilities for at least a decade, and 20% have been there for two decades. The longest-serving employee has stayed for more than 50 years.
That’s because very few employees ever “graduate.” From January 2017 through June 2022, only 2.3% of all sheltered workshop employees in Missouri left for a regular job, according to an analysis of employment data by the Beacon and ProPublica.
Missouri officials chalk the low graduation rate up to the fact that sheltered workshops in the state are not focused on helping their employees transition into the regular workforce — even though state law says they are intended to help disabled adults “progress toward normal living.”
“Missouri’s program was not built as a rehabilitation program,” said Dan Gier, sheltered workshop director at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“It was designed [as] an employment program to allow the disabled adults in Missouri to work that would have not succeeded anywhere else.”
Missouri is an outlier: At least 14 states have adopted laws or policies that completely phase out sheltered workshops or subminimum wages. At least 10 others have considered similar actions in recent years. This shift has come on the heels of a number of studies showing that sheltered workshops across the country were failing to live up to their goal, including a 2001 estimate by the Government Accountability Office that no more than 5% of employees were transitioning into the regular workforce.
Amid growing calls to eliminate subminimum wages at the federal level, Missouri instead deepened its commitment to sheltered workshops last year. Currently, the U.S. Department of Labor is the only agency empowered to issue certificates that allow the facilities to pay below the minimum wage. In July 2021, Missouri lawmakers passed a measure to develop the state’s own system of issuing the certificates, in case the federal government stops issuing them — a move that experts say no other state has taken.
State Sen. Bill White, a Republican who was one of the measure’s key supporters, said falling in line with other states to phase out sheltered workshops in Missouri would be a mistake.
“This wonderful idea that we’re going to put everybody in the mainstream and everybody will be able to participate and function perfectly in this economy isn’t true,” White said. “They’re just not as able to be as fast, as productive and as efficient.”
Critics say Missouri’s stance on sheltered workshops is akin to treating disabled adults as second-class citizens, keeping them segregated and reliant on disability payments or family support for their entire lives.
“They lose the opportunity to craft their own life,” said Judith Gross, director of the Center on Community Living and Careers at Indiana University. “They will never have freedom of choice of recreation, nor where they live, nor how they make their money.”
Advocates point to the long-term successes of states like Vermont — the first to eliminate sheltered workshops — as evidence that disabled adults can find gainful employment.
Within three years of closing its last sheltered workshop in 2002, Vermont officials reported that about 80% of the facility’s former employees had transitioned into the regular workforce. In the decades that followed, the state’s employment rate for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities rose to more than twice the national average.
Cheryl Bates-Harris, senior disability advocacy specialist at the National Disability Rights Network, a nonprofit advocacy group, said Missouri’s sheltered workshop supporters are “diehards” who are out of step with the growing opposition nationwide.
“Missouri is what I like to call the king of sheltered workshops,” Bates-Harris said. “It’s a situation that has never been good, and Missouri is just fighting it, probably worse than anyone else.”
The legal right to pay people with disabilities below the minimum wage is as old as the minimum wage law itself. In 1938, Congress included a clause in the Fair Labor Standards Act to authorize subminimum wages, a move heralded by disability rights advocates as a progressive step for a community with few other options at the time.
Across the country, sheltered workshops exploded in number from the 1950s through the 1970s, coinciding with the passage of additional laws that spelled out the federal government’s priority: helping disabled adults move on from subminimum wages by learning new skills that would allow them to succeed in the regular workforce.
In 1966, Congress amended the Fair Labor Standards Act, ordering the Labor Department to study the feasibility of raising wages at sheltered workshops. It also mandated changes with the goal of “improving the economic circumstances of handicapped workers, speeding their movement into fully productive private employment, and assuring that such workers are not exploited through low wages,” according to a Senate report.
Missouri first established its system for funding and oversight of sheltered workshops in 1965, the culmination of a successful campaign by disabled adults’ family members who argued that being able to work — even with low pay — would at least keep their loved ones from sitting at home all day. While the state embraced the low-wage part of the federal government’s goals, it didn’t adopt the rehabilitative aspect of helping sheltered workshop employees transition into the regular workforce.
Today, many of the 97 sheltered workshop locations in Missouri function as light manufacturing assembly lines, completing tasks such as packaging medical gear and building automobile parts. Several others are recycling facilities. Their operations are primarily sustained through the sales of the goods and services produced by their employees, in addition to some state and local funding.
On average, Missouri’s sheltered workshop employees earn less than $4 an hour, according to a Beacon-ProPublica analysis of federal Department of Labor wage data for more than 3,000 employees. Fewer than 10% earned above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, and almost none made above Missouri’s minimum wage of $11.15 an hour, the analysis shows. The lowest-earning employees took home an average of less than a dollar an hour.
Sheltered workshop employees’ pay rates — in Missouri and elsewhere — are determined based on their productivity. As a result, wages can vary widely from one employee to the next, and some can earn more than the minimum wage. Pay rates are determined through a process known as “wage surveys,” conducted at least every six months, which adjust pay based on the assessment of an employee’s work output compared to that of a nondisabled worker.
Subminimum wages can work to sheltered workshop employees’ advantage, allowing them to work at their own pace, said Kit Brewer, executive director of Project CU, a St. Louis sheltered workshop.
“It allows an individual to go to work to be as productive as their skill level enables them and to not have the outside pressures of some sort of quota-based system,” said Brewer, who serves as the legislative chair of the Missouri Association of Sheltered Workshop Managers.
Critics say the system is rigged against disabled employees, forcing them to constantly prove their worth in a way nondisabled workers are never asked to do.
“Why is that fair?” asked Rick Glassman, director of advocacy at the Disability Law Center, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit. “There are these biases that are just baked into the system.”
State Rep. Bridget Walsh Moore, a Democrat whose leg was amputated during bone cancer treatment, said she rejects the idea of paying people less based on their disabilities, but she supports keeping sheltered workshops as an option within the broader spectrum of disability services.
“An hour of someone’s time is an hour of someone’s time,” Walsh Moore said at a legislative hearing last year. “When we start putting a literal value attached to certain types of people — which is exactly what we’re doing when we say, ‘You are worth this, but you are only worth this. You’re below what we have established as a minimum’ — what are we saying to that individual?”
In recent years, the federal government has encouraged states to move away from sheltered workshops through several new initiatives. One of the most significant came in 2014, when Congress passed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, requiring that subminimum-wage employees receive annual career counseling.
One of the law’s goals was to ensure that disabled adults only enter or remain in sheltered workshops if it is their “informed choice” to not seek a job in the regular workforce.
Many states took the law’s requirements as an incentive to ramp up their sheltered workshop graduation rates or eliminate subminimum wages altogether, arguing that the practice of paying people with disabilities less is discriminatory and exploitative.
Chaz Compton, former project director for the Workforce Innovation Technical Assistance Center, a federally funded program to help states comply with the law’s requirements, said it was clear early on that Congress’ goal was being achieved in many places. The numbers of subminimum-wage employees and employers have both been trending down, he said.
In Missouri, however, the law has not had as much impact.
Even after receiving career counseling, very few in Missouri have sought help from Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation, the primary resource through which disabled adults in the state receive employment support, such as on-site job coaching, career planning and trial work experiences. Since the rules on career counseling went into effect in 2016, an average of 1.15% of sheltered workshop employees have requested services each year following career counseling, according to an analysis of Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation data by the Beacon and ProPublica. From 2017 to 2021, only 13 employees have graduated out of sheltered workshops through this process, the analysis shows.
The 2014 law doesn’t specify exactly how these career counseling sessions should be conducted, but several experts who have studied the subject say a key determinant of success is how individualized the counseling is — and this is where Missouri’s method falls short.
In Missouri, all subminimum-wage employees in sheltered workshops are gathered in groups once or twice a year and shown a video, according to Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation guidance documents obtained through an open records request.
In Minnesota, by contrast, each subminimum wage employee is provided with one-on-one counseling to discuss work options, according to a state task force on eliminating subminimum wages.
“It’s not an informed choice if you don’t have the information about what the possibilities are,” Compton said.
Amy Bowen, manager of youth services at Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation, said that her agency has no plans to change how it provides career counseling and its approach is in compliance with the law. She added that the low number of career counseling recipients in the state expressing interest in employment support is reflective of each individual’s informed decision. “They're choosing to remain where they are working at this point in time,” she said.
When sheltered workshop employees do seek employment support from Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation, they face an uphill battle.
From 2017 through 2020, Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation received applications for its services from nearly 500 people who were either employees of sheltered workshops or referred to the agency by one of the facilities. But it turned away applicants from sheltered workshops based on determinations that their disabilities were too significant at the highest rate in the country, according to an analysis of U.S. Rehabilitation Services Administration data by the Beacon and ProPublica.
As in other states, the agency’s employees in Missouri are given discretion to turn away people who are deemed ineligible when state employees find “clear and convincing evidence” that applicants’ disabilities would prevent them from benefiting from the agency’s services, according to state vocational rehabilitation instruction guides.
Missouri denied services to more than 35% of applicants from sheltered workshops on this basis. That’s more than six times the turn-away rate in Illinois, which rejects such applicants more often than any state but Missouri.
Among sheltered workshop employees who received services from Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation, fewer than a third found a job in the regular workforce. Missouri ranks 42nd in the country on this metric, the analysis shows.
Chris Clause, assistant commissioner of adult learning and rehabilitative services at Missouri’s education department, said the state has not looked into how often it turns away sheltered workshop employees based on the severity of their disability.
“I don’t have an answer that I can provide as to why it would be higher than other states,” Clause said. “We’re operating in accordance with the law as we’re required to.”
Missouri is the only state in the country that refuses to accept any federal funding for the day-to-day operations of its sheltered workshops — a practice first adopted by state lawmakers in the 1960s. State officials say doing so is in line with Missouri’s long-standing core values.
“They believed work brings dignity, brings pride, brings income, brings self-reliance, brings the ability to pick and choose, just as employment for the average American does,” said Gier, Missouri’s sheltered workshop director.
Advocates say Missouri’s decision allows the state to avoid requirements — including those aimed at ramping up the graduation rates — that come with federal funding.
Other states often apply those funds to help remove employment barriers, such as the lack of transportation, that sheltered workshop employees frequently face when transitioning into regular jobs. In September, 14 states were awarded a combined $177 million in Department of Education grants that can be used for this purpose. Illinois, the only state with more sheltered workshops than Missouri, received nearly $14 million.
But Missouri didn’t apply for the grants. Mallory McGowin, chief communications officer for Missouri’s education department, said the state is exploring ways to expand employment support for disabled adults using existing resources.
Steven Schwartz, legal director for the Center for Public Representation, a national public-interest law firm based in Massachusetts that advocates for people with disabilities, said Missouri’s rejection of federal funds for sheltered workshop employees makes no economic sense if the state is really serious about providing support.
Missouri is settling for providing subpar support “when it could have federally funded employment services for the very same people,” Schwartz said.
For many disabled adults and their families in Missouri, the state’s failure to help remove the employment barriers has left them with little choice: They believe that the best option they have is to work at a sheltered workshop. And they don’t want that choice to go away.
Dozens of current sheltered workshop employees and their families told the Beacon and ProPublica that this is why they support the state’s defense of sheltered workshops. They also said they support subminimum wages because they worry that higher pay might mean they could lose their federal disability benefits.
“Granted they don’t make as much money, but they are safe and they’re happy,” said Susan Bianchi, whose son lives with her and has worked at Project CU for 17 years.
Even Bramlet from the Warren County Sheltered Workshop said her workshop provides resources she wouldn’t get elsewhere, such as transportation to and from work — a service many sheltered workshop operators provide.
Bramlet is now taking a temporary break from work to address medical issues, but she said she will return to the workshop as soon as she can. “It’s what’s best for me,” she said.
Gross, of the Center on Community Living and Careers, said she often heard similar sentiments when she led a project at the University of Kansas to help educate disabled adults and their families on their employment options. She said this is fueled by inaccurate information on available resources and poor guidance on how to navigate what can be a complex process for getting support.
While educating families can help, Gross said, it’s still difficult to convince people to change long-held beliefs when they rarely see success stories in their own communities. “Expectations are largely framed by our experience, by what we know,” she said.
Sharrah Welch, 36, a former sheltered workshop employee who made the transition into the regular workforce four years ago, said her experience could serve as a model for others.
Welch had been working for more than a decade at the Center for Human Services’ sheltered workshop in Sedalia, Missouri, when the facility closed. Staff helped employees find regular jobs.
Welch, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and fetal alcohol syndrome, said she was initially apprehensive about making any career switch. But the support she received made the difference in her success, she said.
“It helped me a tremendous amount,” Welch said about the services that her sheltered workshop provided, such as offering a job coach to help her learn the ropes of her current position working machines at a broom factory. “It’s sad that in this world so many people put us down like, ‘Oh, they have a disability. They can’t do the job.’ Because you know what, [they’re] wrong. … We can do it, just with some help.”
Alex Mierjeski and Gabriel Sandoval contributed research, Hannah Fresques contributed data reporting and Maryam Jameel contributed reporting.