NC agrees to phase out support for programs that pay people with disabilities below minimum wage

Kevin Bizzell works two jobs, one in a cafe making legal minimum wage, the other in a program making below minimum wage. (Courtesy Disability Rights NC)

Jobs that often have people with developmental disabilities working for less than minimum wage will be phased out over the next four years in North Carolina.

Disability rights groups announced Thursday that they reached an agreement with the state Department of Health and Human Services that will result in the state ending financial support for what’s called sheltered workshops. These are places where only people with disabilities work, often for far below minimum wage. DHHS will instead focus money on services that will help people with intellectual or developmental disabilities work in outside jobs that pay at least minimum wage, called competitive integrated employment.

Disability Rights North Carolina and the Center for Public Representation have been working on the agreement since 2020, representatives said.

DHHS knows of nearly 1,000 people in programs of the kind that will be phased out, the agreement says. DHHS will help groups that run sheltered workshops convert to supporting people working in outside jobs.

Beginning July 1 of this year, no new people will go into sheltered workshops.

By July 1, 2023, people working in them will have an employment assessment, and everyone who wants an outside job will have a career development plan.

Sheltered workshop employment will end on July 1, 2026.

As sheltered workshops are phased out, there will be a “significant expansion of supported employment services and opportunities for people to work, as well as integrated day services for people who are not interested in working, or what to do both,” said Steven J. Schwartz, litigation director at the Center for Public Representation.

Supported employment is a state-funded program that prepares people with disabilities to find and keep jobs.

“It allows people with intellectual or developmental disabilities to be full members of the workforce – get paid what everyone else is paid, minimum wage or better, entitles them to whatever benefits or advancement is available to people without disabilities. People with disabilities will have a fair shot at whatever work is available to everyone else,” Schwartz said.

In 2020, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recommended repealing the section of the federal law that allows employers to pay people with disabilities less than minimum wage.

Other states, including Maryland and Alaska, have abandoned the practice, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The change in North Carolina will affect not only about 1,000 people who now work in sheltered workshops, but people who won’t end up working in one, said Chris Hodgson of Disability Rights NC.

“The norm will be to be part of the mainstream economy,” he said.


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