The state legislature is now in its second special session after Governor Eric Greitens criticized it for not getting more done during the regular session.

Lawmakers approved a total of 81 pieces of legislation, including the budget, compared to normal years when it passes 150 or more bills.

Among the relatively few measures the legislature found consensus on was a resolution reaffirming support for “sheltered workshops”.  House Concurrent Resolution 28 cleared the Senate with one day left in the regular session.  The vote was 32-0.  The House had previously passed the resolution 151-1.

Roughly 6,300 people with developmental disabilities earn money at 90 sheltered workshops in Missouri.

The state’s system is known as the Extended Employment Sheltered Workshop Program.  It’s not connected to Medicaid and is funded by state, local and business activities.

But the program is still being threatened on the federal level.  A wide ranging law known as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act passed Congress with bipartisan support in 2014.  But its effects, which some think were unintended, weren’t realized until 2015-16.

A portion of the law requires those with disabilities to choose either a sheltered workshop or competitive employment, when many of them split time between both work environments.

Republican state Senator Dan Hegeman-of Cosby – Photo courtesy on Missouri House

As a result, according state Senator Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby, states throughout the country are phasing out their sheltered workshops in favor of moving individuals with disabilities into traditional workplaces.

He says there were more than 1,100 individuals with disabilities waiting for a job at one of Missouri’s sheltered workshops as of April.

Hegeman‘s critical of the federal workplace policy, which forces a choice between traditional and sheltered facilities.  “I don’t know that I would particularly agree with that” said Hegeman.  “I think there’s some folks that would excel better in the sheltered atmosphere.”

Still, sheltered workshops are poorly regarded by those who are critical of the low wages.  According to the Missouri Association of Sheltered Workshop Managers, the Department of Labor allows the facilities to pay a special sub-minimum wage.

Workshop employees are paid based on their ability to perform.  If an employee produces 50% of what a non-disabled person produces, they’re paid 50% of what that person makes.

Overall, sheltered workshop employees tend to make very low hourly wages.  Figures from the Government Accountability Office show that more than half of all workers with disabilities earns $2.50 an hour or less. Eighty-six percent of them work part-time.

Hegeman contends the employees who now make the low wages would be severely impacted if their jobs at sheltered workshops were to go away.

“(It’s) the feeling of self-worth, the social interaction that many of them lose once they lose these workshop opportunities.  They end up not being able to be employed.  And then they find themselves isolated in their homes.”

State Rep. Rory Rowland (D-Independence)

The resolution to support the workshops was sponsored by Democratic House member Rory Rowland of Independence.  He thinks the federal requirements in their current form, will cost taxpayers a lot of money.

“The state of Missouri pays, basically $19 a day for someone to be in a sheltered workshop” said Rowland.  “However though, if we take them to a day rehabilitation center, the state pays $19.50 per 15 minutes, almost $80 an hour for them to be in that program compared to a sheltered workshop.”

The high cost of rehabilitation centers comes in spite federal assistance through Medicaid.  The federal law was designed to encourage higher paying opportunities in competitive employment, but Rowland says its failure to allow for work choice endangers sheltered workshops.

Funding for sheltered workshops has been preserved in a year when the state budget is razor tight.  Toward the end of the session, lawmakers were haggling over items carrying a price tag of $20 million or less.  State funding for sheltered workshops totals $26,041,961.

Senator Hegeman thinks the expense is worthwhile.  He says the facilities provide personal fulfillment for the workers.

“If you’ve ever had a chance to visit a sheltered workshop, you can see the pride, and the social aspect gain that the clients get from the sheltered workshop” said Hegeman.  “It’s a joy to see the pleasure on their faces, and the meaningful work that they do.”