Change for the better

Since 1966, individuals with disabilities could work in a segregated setting and earn less than minimum wage through LifeWorks Community Services. As of 2019, this segregation ends.

Since 1966, individuals with disabilities could work in a segregated setting and earn less than minimum wage through LifeWorks Community Services. As of 2019, this segregation ends.

“Times have changed. In 1966, it was revolutionary to offer a place just for individuals with disabilities to work. Now that there are other programs, there are better options,” LifeWorks’ Vocational Director Curt Duffield said.

In 1966, the sheltered workshop was seen as work activity. The workshop gave individuals with disabilities something productive to do with their days. Over time, sheltered work became a work skills training program. It was meant as a step to community employment. Some people indeed left the shop and got their own jobs. Others did not. Some still had skills to learn. Others used it to fill in gaps in their day between other programming.

Sheltered workshops generally paid per piece an individual produced. That often resulted in pay below minimum wage. LifeWorks’ workshop was no exception.

“Though a special certificate from the Department of Labor allowed us to pay subminimum wages, is it the right thing to do by individuals with disabilities?” Duffield said.

Working in the workshop also segregates individuals away from people without disabilities.

“Advocates cite this as a civil rights issue,” he said.

The workshop’s last day to serve individuals with disabilities, according to Duffield, was Dec. 28, 2018, because of the holidays.

“There wasn’t even anyone working in the shop that day,” he said.

Of the handful of individuals that even worked in the shop at all, only three had no other work programming.

So, what happened to people who worked in the sheltered workshop?

LifeWorks started transitioning individuals to different programs about two years ago.

“This closure was planned. We were very intentional on how we did this. Plans were made through interdisciplinary teams to create the best outcomes possible,” Duffield said.

Around 25 people now work on a work crew.

“LifeWorks has groups of two to four people, supervised by a LifeWorks employee, that work as a crew in local businesses. Most, but not all, clean the place of business. All earn minimum wage,” according to Service Coordinator Jill Matthes.

Places in Fort Dodge that contract with LifeWorks for work crews include Head Start, Iowa Central Community College, Manpower, The Messenger, and Webster County Conservation.

Some individuals were hired by local businesses, and receive on-the-job supports. Wolfie Dillingham is happy to have a job in Fort Dodge.

“I feel great about bagging groceries at Fareway. I love it!” he said.

Kurt Sindlinger also enjoys his job. “I like getting paid for working at Buffalo Wild Wings.”

Employment Specialist Marlene Hanson helps people find and maintain employment.

“There are people who want a job, and employers who have a need,” she said. “I’m happy to talk with any employer to see how LifeWorks may be able to fill a gap. I get excited to see people with disabilities grow and learn when they get a new job.”

Some of the individuals who left the workshop increased time in the Day Habilitation, called Connections. According to the program’s handbook, “The goal of the Day Hab program, Connections, is to acquire, retain, or improve leisure skills, community integration, self-advocacy skills, wellness and safety, mobility, communication, and /or socialization in a group setting away from the individual’s home.”

Some individuals also increased time in other opportunities in Fort Dodge, like Friendship Haven’s Adult Day Care program.

Closing the sheltered workshop had limited financial impact.

All income associated with the sheltered workshop equaled less than 2 percent of all income received.

Non-residential programs comprise only about one-fourth of the total budget.

The closure of sheltered workshops has been a national trend and a state trend. Ours is not the first workshop to close, and it won’t be the last. For many individuals, workshop closures are good. For some, this change is difficult. It’s important to take time, though, and plan well. People’s lives are impacted.

Teresa Naughton is executive director of Lifeworks in Fort Dodge.