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The Story Workshop Critics Ignore
Commensurate Wage Helps Expand Opportunities

This article appeared in the January 2019 MASWM newsletter.
Commensurate wages may be one of the most debated issues surrounding workshops today. But despite misunderstandings, commensurate wages used by Missouri workshops are a key to developing employment opportunity for people with disabilities.

“Commensurate wages provide opportunity both for employment and training,” explained Kit Brewer, Moberly workshop manager and MASWM Board of Directors member. “It provides an opportunity for individual growth, and it does not limit earnings to less than minimum wage.”

Equally important is what commensurate wage is not. “Commensurate wage is not intended to be a control on labor expenses for either the certificate holder or its customer base,” Brewer continued. “Commensurate wage is intended to provide additional opportunity for employment training and participation to individuals.”

"Many people with disabilities would have no other options to work and contribute if they didn’t have a workshop. Without a workshop, they would miss all of the physical and mental benefits of working. They just wouldn’t have other options.”

— Russ Kuttenkuler

Another workshop manager and board member stressed that commensurate wages help workshops to function in a competitive work environment. “Many people with disabilities would have no other options to work and contribute if they didn’t have a workshop,” said Russ Kuttenkuler. “Without a workshop, they would miss all of the physical and mental benefits of working. They just wouldn’t have other options.”

The Basics

A commensurate wage rate is a special minimum wage paid to a worker with a disability. The wage is based on the worker’s individual productivity, no matter how limited, in proportion to the wage and productivity of nondisabled workers performing similar work.

Some critics of workshops argue that this exploits workers with disabilities. Extremists even push for elimination of workshops and their replacement by community employment through private companies. The assumption seems to be that private companies would tackle the intense training and support provided by workshops, essentially at no cost.

To workshop veterans and many parents, this well-meaning but misguided strategy is guaranteed to fail, leaving hundreds or even thousands of workers crowded into state-funded day programs or sitting at home. This would especially hurt workers with the most severe disabilities who need training and support far beyond that available through private companies focused on the bottom line

“You have to consider both ends of the disability spectrum,” Brewer said. “For some individuals, to come into a safe, comfortable environment and gain a bit of confidence before they move out into the wider world is all they need. On the other end, where you have significantly challenged individuals, it may be many years before they even have a desire to move into a competitive realm.”

Ultimately, expecting private businesses to deal with thousands of individuals with intellectual disabilities is not realistic. “Most businesses are not prepared to deal with the necessities of helping that individual,” Brewer added. “Every business is not prepared to deal with the individual struggles that some of our workers with disabilities have.”

Other Issues

"You have to consider both ends of the disability spectrum. For some individuals, to come into a safe, comfortable environment and gain a bit of confidence before they move out into the wider world is all they need. On the other end, where you have significantly challenged individuals, it may be many years before they even have a desire to move into a competitive realm.”

— Kit Brewer

Among the original reasons for creating workshops was the need for training and employment for people with disabilities. Before that, options were limited or non-existent. The label “sheltered workshop” grew from the need for a more nurturing environment than found in a for-profit business, even with some case management support. Even with supports, private “corporate culture” rarely allows for the long-term and ongoing assistance needed by a person with moderate or severe developmental disabilities.

A related challenge involves disabilities themselves, including developmental disabilities compared to physical disabilities. Despite some improvement, television and other media often focus on higher-functioning individuals who can hold competitive work positions with moderate support. A typical example involved a news “investigation” that used an individual with a visual impairment and then conflated her workshop experience with workshop employment of people with developmental disabilities.

“Too many people have a concept in mind of what a disability is,” Brewer said. “Your concept is different than mine, but neither is 100 percent correct. When we’re dealing with developmental disabilities, we have to understand that reality.”

Hidden Benefits

Managers and other workshop staff see positive aspects of workshops every day, but those outside frequently miss these activities: people with disabilities relating to their peers, socializing and just having fun.

None of this means workshop employees should not have opportunities to work elsewhere if they want to and can. They should also be paid as much as possible. But few know how to do this better than Missouri workshops, which also led the creation of successful community employment efforts.

Although many workshops struggle each year to balance business contracts and limited county and state funding, they still provide daily employment for more than 6,000 Missourians. Eliminating that option would be a disaster and doing so based on a misunderstanding of commensurate wages would be tragic, especially for those individuals and their families. It would also be wrong.

“The choice is not between commensurate wage and normal wage,” Brewer concluded. “It’s between commensurate wage and no employment at all. Without that option, hundreds, even thousands, who have found success because of this program would be lost.”

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MASWM The Missouri Association of Sheltered Workshop Managers
If you have questions, please contact: President Aaron Martin – (816) 796-7070 or amartin@jobonekc.org;
or Legislative Co-Chairs: Kit Brewer – (660) 263-6202 or kbrewer@rcsiemployment.org
and Brian Hogan – (816) 483-1620 or bhogan@bvinds.org