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Senator Warren’s concern about payment of subminimum wages to developmentally disabled people is misplaced

September 28, 2018 2 comments

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has proven to be one of the nation’s most effective advocates for workers and their financial security; but we think she’s wrong in charging that persons with intellectual and other developmental disabilities are being exploited by work programs that pay them a subminimum wage.

Warren is leading an effort in Congress to eliminate waivers that have allowed employers to pay a subminimum wage to disabled persons who are hired by employers in mainstream work settings. Warren alleges that payment of subminimum wages under the so-called 14(c) certificates or waivers is exploitative and discriminatory.

We would agree that for disabled people with normal intellectual functioning, payment of subminimum wages is exploitative and unnecessarily discriminatory; but a distinction needs to be made in the case of persons who have intellectual or other developmental disabilities that severely limit cognitive functioning.

In not making this distinction in calling for the elimination of the subminimum wage waivers, Warren is making the same well-intentioned mistake that many people in the advocacy community have made. That mistake is to assume that all developmentally disabled people are exactly the same as non-disabled people in terms of their employment potential and, even more importantly, their employment aspirations.

Those assumptions overlook a number of realities, including the fact that virtually all developmentally disabled persons who are placed in those work programs receive government assistance in some form for residential care, day care, or other services. Unlike non-disabled persons, most, if not all, individuals with significantly impaired cognition are not seeking to support themselves financially through work. They are seeking to occupy their time with activities that are meaningful and satisfying to them.

As the brother of an intellectually disabled person noted to me, his brother has no understanding of the concept of money, and wouldn’t know or be able to appreciate whether he was paid a minimum wage rate or not.

In an April 23 letter to U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, Warren and six other senators attempted to link payment of subminimum wages to problems of abuse and poor work conditions in work settings for people with developmental disabilities. The letter cited four instances in which disabled persons were forced to work in sweatshop-like conditions, including a case in Iowa in which intellectually disabled men were working in a turkey processing plant for little or no wages and were subjected to verbal and physical abuse and unsanitary conditions.

But as is the case with abuse or poor conditions in any care-related or work setting, the instances cited in Warren’s letter appear to be the result of poor governmental oversight of those programs. Those problems could have been avoided or could be rectified with proper oversight. The problems were not necessarily the result of payment of subminimum wages.

Moreover, citing isolated instances of abuse in specific work settings doesn’t prove it is a problem in all work settings. In fact, we have not heard of any instances of such exploitation or abuse occurring in sheltered workshops or other work activity programs in Massachusetts.

We have made a number of attempts to contact Warren about this issue. I left separate voicemail messages since Monday of this week with Warren’s Washington and Boston Senate offices. On Monday, I also posted what was essentially this blog post on her website contact page, and asked if she or her staff would respond.  To date, I’ve gotten no response and no call back.

The unfortunate impact of the effort to prohibit employers from paying subminimum wages to developmentally disabled people is that rather than paying them higher wages, most employers choose not to employ them. So the end result is that these disabled individuals miss out on satisfying and meaningful ways to occupy their time.

As we have reported, DDS data show that the number of developmentally disabled persons being placed in integrated or mainstream employment paying at least the minimum wage in Massachusetts has been steadily dropping in the past few years.

During Fiscal Year 2016, a high of 509 clients in the Department of Developmental Services system newly started working in mainstream jobs.  That number dropped to 127 clients entering integrated employment during Fiscal 2017, and to a net increase of only 98 clients during Fiscal 2018.

We are assuming that demand for these mainstream jobs remains high, possibly in the thousands. That there was a net increase of less than 100 developmentally disabled persons in integrated employment in Fiscal 2018 appears to show that the administration has been unable to find jobs for people who want them.

Promises in closing sheltered workshops haven’t been kept

In 2014, the administration of then Governor Deval Patrick began closing sheltered workshops in Massachusetts that provided developmentally disabled persons with piecework activities because those facilities supposedly segregated those persons from their non-disabled peers and paid them less than minimum wage. The Baker administration followed that same policy, ultimately closing all remaining workshops as of the fall of 2016.

The plan of both administrations was to provide training to those former workshop participants and place them in mainstream workforce settings along with supports that would help them to function in those settings.

We expressed concerns at the time, however, that the workshop closure policy was being pursued without knowing, among other things, whether sufficient jobs existed in the private sector for all of those former workshop participants and others who want jobs.

Unfortunately, our concerns have proved to be well founded. Instead of being placed in mainstream or integrated jobs, the vast majority of the former sheltered workshop participants have ended up in DDS-funded Community Based Day Supports (CBDS) programs, which offer little or no work opportunities, and have left many of those people frustrated and bored.

DDS data also show that the DDS day program population increased by 81% from Fiscal 2014 through 2018 in Massachusetts while integrated job placements increased by only 19%. The chart below reflects this trend and illustrates the fact that the total day program population in the DDS system has caught up with and even surpassed the total number of departmental clients in integrated employment since Fiscal 2014.

Chart on DDS integrated employment vs. day program population

Barbara Govoni, the mother of one former sheltered workshop participant, is continuing to advocate for legislation that would allow for the return of piecework activities in her son’s CBDS program.

Direct care workers are the ones who are exploited

Ultimately, Senator Warren’s concern about exploitation is misplaced. It is not the developmentally disabled who are exploited by subminimum wages. Rather, it is the people who are hired by DDS-funded providers to care for them who are usually the victims of systematic exploitation in this field.

As we have noted, direct-care workers in the DDS system, who do have to work in order to feed themselves and their families, are the ones who Senator Warren and other advocates for the disabled should be concerned about.

When direct-care workers are underpaid, it is not only they and their families who suffer, but the very people who depend on their services who suffer as well from substandard care. Paying developmentally disabled people less than minimum wage as part of their work programs doesn’t harm them. Paying their caregivers less than a living wage does.

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Connecticut has moved ahead of Massachusetts on direct-care worker wages

September 18, 2018 2 comments

It apparently took the threat of a major strike, but the Connecticut Legislature passed a bill and the Connecticut governor signed it earlier this year to raise the minimum wage of direct-care workers in that state’s Department of Developmental Services system to $14.75 an hour, starting January 1.

A similar effort fell short last year in Massachusetts when a budget amendment to raise direct-care wages to $15 was killed in a budget conference committee in the Massachusetts Legislature.

While Governor Charlie Baker signed separate legislation in June to raise the minimum wage across the board in Massachusetts to $15, that wage level won’t actually be reached until 2023. The minimum wage will rise to only $12 next year, whereas it will be close to $15 in Connecticut for human services workers as of January 1.

It seems that even though legislators and the administration of Governor Dannel Malloy in Connecticut are equally as tolerant of runaway privatization as they are here in Massachusetts, the Connecticut Legislature and governor have shown a greater recognition that increased privatization has resulted in low wages for direct care human service workers, and that low wages have had a negative impact on services.

In May, after the Connecticut Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of setting the minimum direct-care wage at $14.75, Malloy made a statement that we have yet to hear Governor Baker make:

“For far too long,” Malloy said, “the people who provide care to our most vulnerable neighbors have been underpaid for their critical work.”

In fairness to Baker, Malloy made that statement only after 2,400 employees of nine corporate provider agencies in Connecticut voted in April to authorize a strike that was set to begin in early May. The workers in Connecticut are represented by the SEIU 1199 New England union.

Clearly hoping to avert that strike, the Malloy administration proposed raising the minimum wage for human services workers to $14.75 an hour and providing a five-percent raise for workers earning more than $14.75 an hour effective January 1.

The Malloy administration’s proposal, which was endorsed by the SEIU union and ultimately signed into law, applies to 19,000 union and non-union caregivers that staff some 170 group homes and other nonprofit agencies that receive Medicaid funding in Connecticut, according to The Connecticut Mirror.

As Connecticut Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney noted:

The work (those caregivers) do is among the most important in our state in terms of humanity.  If we are to consider ourselves a humane and caring society, at long last we should begin at least to recognize the value of that work.

In Massachusetts, SEIU Local 509 helped organize a five-day strike  for a living wage in July at CLASS, Inc., a DDS-funded day program provider based in Lawrence. The workers there were getting paid about $13 an hour and wanted a $1 increase. The company was offering an increase of only 40 cents.

The president of CLASS, meanwhile, was making about $187,500 a year, according to the state’s online UFR database.

In July, workers at CLASS, Inc. reached a settlement with management to raise the workers’ wages by 60 cents an hour. That would still leave the average worker there well below what direct-care workers will be earning in Connecticut.

The Massachusetts strike, moreover, didn’t have the impact on legislators and other policy makers here that the threat of the Connecticut strike apparently did in that state. Thus far, it isn’t apparent that there is any political will in Massachusetts to raise the minimum wage of direct-care workers to Connecticut’s level.

That is concerning because five years is a long time to wait for the minimum wage for direct-care workers to reach $15. Due to inflation alone, that $15 will be worth less to Massachusetts workers in 2023 than it would be if they were to receive it starting this January.

 

Our September newsletter questions the Children and Families Committee’s role in investigating DDS

September 10, 2018 1 comment

Each issue of our newsletter, The COFAR Voice, tends to have a theme that units most of the articles.

The theme running through the September issue, which we posted last week on our website, has to do with questions about the role of the state Legislature’s Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities Committee in investigating care and conditions in the Department of Developmental Services system.

That role that the committee is playing is, to say the least, unclear. As the newsletter notes, the committee appeared to open its review of DDS last January when it scheduled an informational hearing on abuse and neglect in the DDS system. But while numerous family members and guardians of DDS clients showed up, ready to share their accounts of their experiences with the system, they weren’t permitted to testify during the public hearing.

Sen. Lovely and Barb Govoni cropped

State Senator Joan Lovely, Senate chair of the Children and Families Committee (left), and Barbara Govoni.

The committee invited only DDS Commissioner Jane Ryder and Nancy Alterio, executive director of the Disabled Persons Protection Commission, to testify publicly. Members of the public were allowed only to submit written testimony.

As we have noted to the committee, written testimony alone is limited in its accessibility to others and therefore in its impact and ability to inform the public at large.

As of late August, the committee was planning to hold a second hearing, but even then — seven months after the initial hearing — no decision had been made as to whether members of the public would be allowed to testify in public before the panel.

It’s unclear why the committee is so reluctant to allow public testimony on these critically important issues. In fact, we see no basis at all for that reluctance.

Also unclear, even at this juncture, is the scope of the committee’s overall review. We have not gotten an answer from the committee co-chairs when we have asked for specifics on that scope.

We have long sought a legislative investigation of the DDS-funded group home system, which is subject to continuing reports of abuse and neglect and inadequate financial oversight. Is the Children and Families Committee really interested in undertaking a comprehensive investigation? No clear answer to that question has been forthcoming.

We also raise questions in the September newsletter about the committee’s decision in June to effectively kill a bill that would have provided work opportunities for clients of DDS-funded day programs. To be fair, that decision was made amid continuing confusion over federal and state rules governing those work activities.

In mid-August, Barbara Govoni, a COFAR member who proposed the work opportunity bill, and I met with Senator Joan Lovely, Senate chair of the Children and Families Committee, to discuss the legislation, the DDS review, and related issues. We are hoping to continue to work with the committee to clear up the confusion over the work opportunity issue and to help get new legislation enacted and passed in the coming legislation session, which starts in January.

We have also offered on a number of occasions to provide information to the committee about care and conditions in the group home system.

Other important stories in our September newsletter concern:

  • The decision by the state’s Public Records supervisor to uphold the secrecy of virtually all reports done by the Disabled Persons Protection Commission, and
  • How direct-care workers at two DDS-funded day program agencies won at least partial victories in their fight for adequate wages and working conditions,

and more.

You can find the new newsletter on the home page of our website and on our newsletters page. Please check it out.