Federal regulations threaten Missouri's sheltered workshops

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COLUMBIA - New federal regulations could change the way sheltered workshops, which employ people with disabilities, operate in mid-Missouri.

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, or WIOA, published its Final Rules on June 30. 

Tim Wallace has worked at Central Missouri Subcontracting Enterprises for a couple years, which is one sheltered workshop in Columbia. Tim's mom says that short time is critical to Tim's happiness and livelihood.

"Closing it would be just shattering for Tim's life," Trish Wallace said.

But that's what could happen. The WIOA rules might prohibit states and schools from helping employ people with disabilities at less than minimum wage.
"More than 6,000 individuals with disabilities in Missouri are employed through sheltered workshops. That's 6,000 jobs at stake, 6,000 taxpayers who are at risk of losing their jobs," Laura Holman, who works at Unlimited Opportunities, a sheltered workshop in Boonville, said.
Final Rules FAQ document says, "VR [Vocational Rehabilitation] services designed to maximize the potential of individuals with disabilities and adds new provisions that limit the payment of subminimum wages to individuals with disabilities."
Some people at CMSE make less than minimum wage, but others make up to $12 an hour. Holman said Unlimited Opportunities' average hourly wage is almost $7 per hour for June 2016. Missouri's minimum wage is $7.65 per hour.
"The faster and the better that the employees do at their job, the higher their paycheck. Well we have seen improvements just based on the amount of money Tim's made over the two and a half years," Wallace said.
The new plan could also introduce age restrictions.
"We suspect that there's going to be some issues in regards to students, or people, under the age of 24 with significant disabilities being referred to sheltered workshops in the future," Bruce Young, president of the Missouri Association of Sheltered Workshop Managers, said.
Young said in the past, teachers who have worked with students every day can help make the decision about where they should work. Sometimes, people with disabilities can be integrated into the workforce. He said more often, though, sheltered workshops are the right fit.
"They tried for the entire year for what would be a good placement and a good fit for him. He struggled with needing a lot of adult support and a lot of supervision," Wallace said about her son Tim.
Now, people with disabilities could have to take a formal assessment to determine placement. Wallace is worried that might not cut it.
"They've never walked in our shoes, so yeah, come spend a day here," she said.
Or if you're like Norma Schmidtlein, make that 11,000 days and counting.
"I've worked here 30 years, I love working here so much," Schmidtlein said.
She's not the only worker who feels that way. Wallace says the sheltered workshop gives her son a safe and clean working environment. She said she doesn't have to worry about how he will get to work because CMSE provides transportation.
"He's liable to walk across the street and get hit by a car," she said. "If he wants a can of Pepsi, he's going to drink an entire can of Pepsi whether his break is up or not. You just can't do that at a normal job."
Wallace said CMSE also gives Tim a sense of purpose.
"He doesn't make much money, but he still brings home a paycheck. Tim could care less if he's making $5 or $50. He's getting a paycheck and he knows that's what people in society do," Wallace said.
Tim says he has a lot of friends at work, too, "This is my friend Matt, he's my friend. Joe's my friend."
The Vocational Rehabilitation portion of the Final Rules was published on June 30 and is more than 900 pages. Sheltered workshop employees say they are sifting through the pages to see what final changes will need to be made.
The Missouri Association of Sheltered Workshop Managers is visiting Washington, D.C. in July to voice its concerns and learn more about the rules. The new regulations will take effect 30 days from their release, on July 30.