CW: Sheltered Workshops:
Kerstie Bramlet was at her workstation inside the Warren County Sheltered Workshop outside St. Louis, Missouri, on a weekday morning in July, putting plastic labels on rabbit-meat dog treats one by one.
The 30-year-old is autistic and has intellectual disabilities. She was dressed in a St. Louis Cardinals shirt and a blue-and-white tie-dye hat. She was working that day on a dog-chew assignment with around a dozen other disabled coworkers.
Bramlet is paid $1.50 an hour for this work. She works at a facility known as a “sheltered workshop,” which is permitted by a federal regulation passed more than 80 years ago to pay disabled employees like her subminimum wages. As a result, it is allowed to pay her at such a low rate. If Bramlet continued to work a full-time schedule, she would make $3,120 a year.
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.
According to an examination of employment statistics by the Beacon and ProPublica, only 2.3% of all sheltered workshop employees in Missouri left from January 2017 to June 2022. The few who left moved onto jobs in the community.
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.
Last year, despite mounting efforts to ban subminimum wages at the federal level, Missouri strengthened its commitment to sheltered workshops. Right now, in the U.S, the only agency authorized to provide certificates allowing institutions to pay less than the minimum wage is the Department of Labor. Missouri lawmakers enacted a bill in July 2021 to create the state’s own system for issuing the certificates in the event that the federal government stopped issuing them — a step that no other state has taken, according to experts.
People with disabilities should be paid a fair wage for their work. Data show that we are conscientious, creative, and dependable at work. It’s 2022, and it’s difficult to understand why subminimum wage is still legal. It is past time to put an end to this discriminatory practice. Everyone should be paid fairly, regardless of disability.
“All in: Easterseals Plan for Disability Equity.” Easterseals, Easterseals, https://www.easterseals.com/our-programs/employment-training/all-in/.
Hopkins, Madison. “Missouri Allows Some Disabled Workers to Earn Less than $1 an Hour. the State Says That’s Fine.” KCUR 89.3 – NPR in Kansas City, NPR, 15 Nov. 2022, https://www.kcur.org/2022-11-15/missouri-allows-some-disabled-workers-to-earn-less-than-1-an-hour-the-state-says-its-fine-if-that-never-changes.