Where Are the Alternatives to Sheltered Workshops?

CW: Sheltered Workshops

In San Francisco, people are working in a warehouse. All of the employees are adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities. They work for local nonprofits and companies on a contract basis.

The nonprofit employment agency that manages the shop, VistAbility, pays them $3 to $14 per hour. Their salary is dependent upon how fast they work. A typical workday consists of completing, menial tasks like inserting rings into heating tubes, packaging ice packs and assembling jewelry boxes.

As a result of a 2021 bill, California will soon criminalize paying subminimum wages. By 2025, “sheltered” disability organizations such as VistAbility, which employs nearly 5,000 Californians statewide, must either begin paying the state’s $15.50-per-hour minimum wage or close down.

Subminimum wage is perfectly legal because, under US labor law, certain people with disabilities have been allowed to be paid less than the minimum wage since 1938. During the Great Depression, this law was introduced to encourage more people to find work.

As of 2021, although 15 states have moved to abolish the practice, approximately 1,500 sheltered workshops remain in operation, employing an estimated 100,000 persons with disabilities at organizations like Goodwill and day program providers such as Opportunity Village.

In California, these jobs have already declined. As many as 16,000 people with impairments worked in workshops or small groups splitting a low wage in 2009. According to state officials, by 2021, just about 6,000 people were employed in those programs.

The phaseout deadline is approaching. It is up to the state and a network of disability service providers to help transfer workshop employees into other jobs, if they want them.

However, some parents say that sheltered workshops give their children meaningful opportunities. When Cory Bowers was in high school, he attended classes alongside a number of other disabled students. Following their graduation, Goodwill of Orange County placed him, along with two or three others, at a garment company’s warehouse and later at a local retailer. They shared one minimum-wage job by hanging clothing on hooks.

Corey earned $2.50 per hour, according to his father. He was happy with his job, felt accomplished when returning home, and was anxious to spend his salary by treating his parents to dinner. Corey would be unable to work in the community which is why the workshop was vital for him.

During the pandemic, Goodwill of Orange County shut down its sheltered workshop and never reopened it. Corey now attends a day program where he participates in activities at the local library, coffee shop, and mall. Corey’s father Chris describes it as little more than babysitting.

Disabled people deserve to be paid fairly for their work. Disabled people are an untapped source of talent. Data shows we are reliable, creative, and hardworking.


All in: Easterseals Plan for Disability Equity.” Easterseals, Easterseals, https://www.easterseals.com/our-programs/employment-training/all-in/.

Carrazana, Chabeli, and Sara Luterman. “Many People with Disabilities Are Paid Just Pennies. Build Back Better Could Help End That.” The 19th, Amanda Zamora, 13 Dec. 2021, https://19thnews.org/2021/12/subminimum-wage-people-with-disabilities/?amp.

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.

Kuang, Jeanne. “Can California Find Better Paying Jobs for People with Disabilities?” CalMatters, California News Publishers Association, 10 May 2023, calmatters.org/california-divide/2023/05/jobs-disabilities-california/.

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