Can California Find Better Paying Jobs For People With Disabilities?

by ZeuCer

At a warehouse tucked into a suburban Bay Area office park, along white folding tables lined up like an assembly line, about 50 people on a March morning snapped together plastic pieces of bicycle safety mirrors or stuffed envelopes with a nonprofit’s donor letters.

The tasks were simple, but it’s work.

The laborers are all adults who have intellectual or developmental disabilities, performing jobs under contract for local businesses and nonprofits. VistAbility, the nonprofit employment services provider that runs the shop, pays them each $3 to $14 an hour, depending on their speed.

The arrangement is legal — for now.

Thanks to a 2021 law change, California will soon ban paying subminimum wages to people with disabilities, a decades-old practice originating from the Great Depression.

By 2025 “sheltered” disability programs like the one at VistAbility — which together employ about 5,000 Californians statewide — must begin paying the state’s $15.50-an-hour minimum wage or shut down.

The transition toward better pay has exposed a bitter debate within the state’s disability services community: Can everyone with a disability get a job in the broader labor market — and should that be the goal? And for a group of people largely receiving public assistance, what’s the role of a job in their lives?

John Bolle, VistAbility’s executive director, said when his workshop is required to pay minimum wage, some of the faster workers may be able keep working. But he doubts local businesses and nonprofits will pay more expensive contracts to accommodate higher wages, and he predicted those with the most significant disabilities likely will lose their jobs.

“The state is essentially ignoring those people,” he said.

Better jobs ‘within my reach’
At VistAbility some workers said they liked the company of coworkers, the steady tasks and guaranteed weekday hours. They said it would be harder to find an “outside job.” John Shillick, 61, said he used to clean motel rooms with the help of a job coach, but he found it difficult to keep pace.

“I would like to get a better job with a decent salary,” Shillick said. “I don’t know exactly what, but something within my reach.”

Opponents of subminimum wage programs like Vistability’s say they segregate people who have disabilities, keeping them from obtaining better paying work and greater independence — which they could achieve with the right services to assist them.

On the other side, program operators and some workers’ families defend the current arrangements, saying these workers would not otherwise have job opportunities. About 20% of people who have developmental disabilities in California are employed, the state’s Department of Developmental Services says.

Chris Bowers’ 42-year-old son, Cory, was one. He worked for nearly 20 years for less than minimum wage at an Orange County retail store, where an employment services provider placed him. Recently that provider shut down its subminimum wage programs, ending his job.

Now Bowers can’t imagine his son, who has Down syndrome, finding a job like that one, which provided transportation and a job coach.

“There’s no avenue for our kids to go to a job site, other than somebody’s going to have to pay them $16 an hour,” Bowers said. “He can’t do the job of somebody that’s earning $16 an hour. It’s just not going to happen.”

State resources for workers with disabilities


The new law requires that all subminimum wage workshops phase out. Whether their participants end up in better jobs, or with little to occupy their days, in large part depends on how California’s disability services system responds.

The Department of Developmental Services, which pays for these services, says it is ramping up funding so providers of job placement services can get those currently working for less than minimum wage into “competitive integrated employment” — that is, working for at least minimum wage alongside coworkers who don’t have disabilities.

But if the past is prologue, the Legislative Analyst Office notes such resources are under-utilized.

The office analyzed state-funded competitive integrated employment programs for workers with disabilities — including paid internships — and found that service providers used only 60% of the funds allocated in the 2021-2022 fiscal year. And that was the most spent in each of the last five years.


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