The Kansas City Beacon worked with us to write this story. They are part of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network.
Kerstie Bramlet is 30 years old. She is autistic and has intellectual disabilities. Intellectual disabilities are disabilities that affect the way people think and learn.
Bramlet works at a place called the Warren County Sheltered Workshop. Warren County Sheltered Workshop is near St. Louis, Missouri.
Bramlet’s job was putting plastic labels on dog treats. She put the labels on the dog treats with about 12 other people. One time while they were working, they talked about a Special Olympics event. Many of the people she worked with were also disabled.
The workers worked together to label the dog treats. Some people put labels on the dog treats. Some people counted the dog treats.
After the workers labeled the dog treats, other people sold them on Amazon. Six dog treats would cost $14.99. Bramlet earns $1.50 an hour for her work.
The law says that every business has to pay its workers a minimum wage. The minimum wage is the least amount of money a worker can be paid. It is illegal to pay most people less than the minimum wage.
Warren County Sheltered Workshop pays Bramlet less than the minimum wage. Money that is less than the minimum wage is called a subminimum wage. It is legal to pay some disabled people a subminimum wage.
Most people work 40 hours per week. If Bramlet worked 40 hours per week, she would not earn enough money to live on her own.
Bramlet works at a place called a sheltered workshop. A sheltered workshop is a special place where people with some types of disabilities work.
Sheltered workshops are supposed to be places where disabled people can learn how to work in other kinds of jobs.
Sheltered workshops can pay disabled people a subminimum wage.
Sheltered workshops are supposed to be places where people work for a short amount of time. Bramlet has been working at her sheltered workshop off and on for around 8 years. This is a long time.
Reporters from The Kansas City Beacon and ProPublica looked at how long people had been working at sheltered workshops in Missouri.
The reporters learned that most of the people working at sheltered workshops had worked there for a long time.
Almost half of the people working at sheltered workshops had been working there for more than 10 years. Some people had been working at sheltered workshops for more than 20 years. The person who had been working at sheltered workshops the longest had been working there for more than 50 years.
People are supposed to leave sheltered workshops for regular jobs. Regular jobs have to pay minimum wage. In Missouri, not very many people leave sheltered workshops for regular jobs.
In Missouri, the law says that sheltered workshops are supposed to help people “progress towards normal living.” Some people think this means sheltered workshops are supposed to teach people how to work at regular jobs.
Dan Gier is in charge of sheltered workshops in Missouri.
Gier says that he does not think sheltered workshops in Missouri are supposed to teach people how to work in regular jobs. He thinks that sheltered workshops are supposed to be a workplace for people who cannot learn how to work at regular jobs.
States have different rules about sheltered workshops.
Missouri is different from other states because it wants to keep sheltered workshops. Some states have passed laws that get rid of sheltered workshops. Some states passed laws to ban subminimum wages. This is because sheltered workshops are not doing what they are supposed to do.
Missouri passed a law to make sure that sheltered workshops can pay subminimum wages in Missouri.
State Senator Bill White helps make laws in Missouri. He does not think Missouri should get rid of sheltered workshops.
Senator White says, “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. They’re just not as able to be as fast, as productive and as efficient.”
Senator White thinks that most people who work in sheltered workshops would not be good at regular jobs.
Some people think that Missouri should get rid of sheltered workshops. Some of the things people think about sheltered workshops are:
- Sheltered workshops treat disabled adults differently than nondisabled adults.
- Sheltered workshops keep disabled people separate from nondisabled adults.
- Sheltered workshops make it so disabled people cannot be independent. People who work in sheltered workshops do not make enough money to live on their own. Disabled people who work in sheltered workshops need family support or payments from the government in order to live.
Judith Gross has helped disabled people learn about living on their own. This is what she said about disabled people who work at sheltered workshops. “They lose the opportunity to craft their own life. They will never have freedom of choice of recreation, nor where they live, nor how they make their money.”
Vermont was the first state to get rid of sheltered workshops. The last sheltered workshop in Vermont closed in 2002. Most of the people who worked in Vermont’s last sheltered workshop moved to working at regular jobs. Many people with intellectual disabilities in Vermont work at regular jobs.
Cheryl Bates-Harris helps stand up for the rights of disabled people. She says that many officials in Missouri do not want to ban sheltered workshops. Many officials in other states want to ban sheltered workshops.
Businesses have been allowed to pay disabled people a subminimum wage for a long time. In 1938, the United States government passed a law. This law let businesses pay disabled people a subminimum wage.
The government thought this was the only way some disabled people could get jobs. Businesses did not want to hire disabled people. Businesses wanted to pay disabled people less money than nondisabled people.
A lot of sheltered workshops opened in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The United States government passed laws about sheltered workshops. The laws said that sheltered workshops were supposed to help disabled people learn job skills. These job skills were supposed to help disabled people work at regular jobs.
In 1965, Missouri passed a law that made it so many sheltered workshops could open. This is because families of disabled adults wanted sheltered workshops to open in Missouri. Families of disabled adults wanted their family members to work. Without sheltered workshops, many disabled adults could not get a job.
Missouri allowed sheltered workshops to pay disabled workers a subminimum wage. Missouri did not make sure that sheltered workshops taught job skills to help disabled people get regular jobs.
In Missouri, people who work in sheltered workshops do many different types of jobs. Some of the jobs people do are:
- Packaging medical supplies.
- Building parts for cars.
- Sorting recycling.
Sheltered workshops make money when they sell what the workers make or do. Sheltered workshops also get money from the government.
Most people who work in sheltered workshops in Missouri earn less than $4 an hour. Some people earn less than $1 an hour.
Minimum wage in Missouri is $11.15 an hour. Almost nobody who works in a sheltered workshop in Missouri earns more than $11.15 an hour.
This information is from the United States Department of Labor. The United States Department of Labor has information about how much money people earn.
In sheltered workshops, workers make money based on how much work they can do in an hour. The sheltered workshops compare the amount of work a disabled person does in an hour to the amount of work a nondisabled person does in an hour. This is called a wage survey.
Kit Brewer is in charge of a sheltered workshop in St. Louis. He says that subminimum wages are a good thing for workers. He says that subminimum wages make it so that workers can work at their own speed.
Other people believe that subminimum wages are unfair to disabled workers. Nondisabled workers do not have to do wage surveys. All nondisabled workers have to earn minimum wage.
Rick Glassman stands up for the rights of disabled people. He thinks that wage surveys are unfair. He thinks that they are biased against disabled people. This means that nondisabled people are treated better than disabled people.
State Representative Bridget Walsh Moore helps make laws in Missouri. She has a disability. She does not believe people should be paid less than others because of their disability. She does believe sheltered workshops should exist. She thinks sheltered workshops should be a choice for some disabled people.
The United States government makes some laws about sheltered workshops. The United States government wants states to have fewer sheltered workshops. The United States government has a law that helps people who work in sheltered workshops. This became a law in 2014. All states have to follow this law.
The law says that people who work at sheltered workshops have to go to career counseling. Career counseling helps people find jobs that they like. Career counseling can help disabled people learn about jobs that are not in sheltered workshops.
The law is supposed to make sure that disabled people have choices. The law makes sure that disabled people want to work in sheltered workshops. If disabled people do not want to work in sheltered workshops, career counseling can help them find other jobs.
Chaz Compton helps states follow the laws about sheltered workshops. He says that the laws are working in many places. In these places, fewer people earn a subminimum wage. Fewer businesses are paying a subminimum wage.
The law is not working as well in Missouri.
Every state has a Vocational Rehabilitation program. These help disabled people find jobs. Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation helps disabled people in Missouri find jobs. One of the ways people who work in sheltered workshops can get help from Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation is through the career counseling required by the new law.
Very few people who work in sheltered workshops in Missouri get help finding regular jobs from Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation.
In Missouri, the way people get career counseling is different from other states.
In Missouri’s career counseling, people who work in sheltered workshops are shown a video. Groups of people who work in sheltered workshops watch the video together. This is how people who work in sheltered workshops learn about their job choices.
In Minnesota, every person who works in a sheltered workshop meets with a career counselor. They meet with a career counselor by themselves.
Amy Bowen works at Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation. She says that Missouri is not going to change how disabled people see career counselors. She says that people who work at sheltered workshops want to keep working at sheltered workshops. She says that everyone is making an informed decision.
Some people in Missouri who work at sheltered workshops want more help finding a regular job. People who want help from Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation have trouble getting help.
Between 2017 and 2020, a lot of people who worked at sheltered workshops applied for help from Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation to find regular jobs. Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation denied the applications of a lot of people because state officials said their disabilities were too severe.
Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation did not help people get jobs if state officials said they had disabilities that were too severe.
Every state has a place where disabled people can get help finding jobs. These places are allowed to deny people who have disabilities that make them too hard to help. Missouri denied more applications because people had disabilities that made them too hard to help than any other state.
Chris Clause helps Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation. He does not know why Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation denies so many people.
Some people who worked in sheltered workshops did get help from Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation. Less than a third of these people found jobs outside of sheltered workshops.
The United States government gives states money for their sheltered workshops if they follow some rules. This money helps sheltered workshops stay open. Missouri does not let the United States government give this money to sheltered workshops in Missouri.
If Missouri got money from the United States government, it would have to follow some rules. One of these rules is that more people working at sheltered workshops would have to try to work at regular jobs. Some people say that Missouri does not want to follow these rules.
Sheltered workshops in other states get a lot of money from the United States government. They use some of this money to help people work at regular jobs.
Mallory McGowin works for the Missouri government. She says that the Missouri government is finding other ways to get money to help disabled adults.
Steven Schwartz stands up for the rights of disabled people. He says that Missouri should let the United States government give them money.
He says that Missouri could do a better job helping disabled adults with money from the United States government.
Many disabled adults and their families in Missouri like sheltered workshops. They believe that sheltered workshops are the only way that disabled adults can find a job. They do not want sheltered workshops to be banned in Missouri.
Many disabled adults and their families also support subminimum wages. This is because some disabled people get money from the government to help them live. If they make more than a subminimum wage, the government will not give them this money.
Susan Bianchi has a son who works at a sheltered workshop. She says, “Granted they don’t make as much money, but they are safe and they’re happy.”
Kerstie Bramlet works at a sheltered workshop. She says her sheltered workshop does things that other jobs do not do. Her sheltered workshop helps drive her to and from work.
Bramlet is taking a break from work because she has a medical issue. She wants to go back to working at her sheltered workshop as soon as she can. “It’s what’s best for me,” she says.
Judith Gross has helped disabled people learn about living on their own. She worked on a project where she taught disabled adults and their families about what types of jobs they can have. She says that a lot of families she taught liked sheltered workshops.
For disabled adults, getting help finding jobs is hard. Gross says that a lot of families do not know about all of their choices.
Gross says that it is hard for many people to change what they think about sheltered workshops. The people she taught did not know many people who moved from sheltered workshops to regular jobs. Because of this, many people think sheltered workshops are the best choice for them.
Sharrah Welch is 36 years old. She has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, which is sometimes called ADHD. She also has fetal alcohol syndrome. She used to work at a sheltered workshop. Now she works at a regular job.
She works on machines at a broom factory. She says people can learn from her experience switching from a sheltered workshop to a regular job.
Welch worked at a sheltered workshop in Sedalia, Missouri, for more than 10 years. That sheltered workshop closed. Helpers at the sheltered workshop helped the workers find regular jobs.
Welch was nervous about switching from a sheltered workshop to a regular job. People helped her as she switched jobs. A job coach helped her learn how to do her new job. The support helped her do well at her new job.
Welch says, “It helped me a tremendous amount. 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.’” She says the people who say that are wrong. “We can do it, just with some help.”
Alex Mierjeski and Gabriel Sandoval contributed research. Hannah Fresques contributed data reporting. Maryam Jameel contributed reporting. Hallie Bernstein translated this story into plain language.