Are Sheltered Workshops a Beacon of Light for the Disabled, or Exploitation at Its Finest?

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Following President Obama’s recent executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers, labor attorneys and lawmakers throughout the United States are again considering reforms of working conditions in their own states. It’s for this reason that Walmart, one of the most powerful businesses in the country, has more than 5,000 lawsuits currently pending for unfair or abusive practices towards its employees, according to WorkPlaceFairness.

One of the biggest area’s of concern are sheltered workshops. To oversimplify these institutions, sheltered workshops are businesses that are meant to function as training centers and employment opportunities for disabled people in the States. However, as employment attorneys increasingly wage war against businesses for able-bodied Americans, many labor lawyers at the federal level and down are beginning to consider whether sheltered workshops are exploitative anachronisms that are better left in the past.

The Origins of Sheltered Workshops
According to NPR, sheltered workshops first came to be when the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was passed. The law was originally instituted to help disabled veterans find jobs. Under the law, businesses can hire disabled workers and are allowed to prorate their pay based on the amount of work they’d get done compared to their able-bodied counterparts. Say, for example, Bob, an able-bodied factory worker, earns $20/per hour. Kevin, a disabled worker, is only half as productive at the same job, meaning that his employers could legally pay him half of what Bob makes. While, critics say, this practice may have made sense following World War II, these days, these practices are both outdated and exploitative.

Arguments Against Their Continued Existence
Last year, the State of Oregon came under fire from thousands of disabled workers. Oregon, the plaintiffs said, was paying its disabled employees subminimum wages, while failing to provide them with ample tools for seeking jobs and training new skills. As Disability Scoop, a popular web outlet for news on the disabled community, reports, President Obama directed the employment lawyers at the Justice Department to join in on the class-action suit against Oregon.

Labor attorneys seem to have an increasingly strong case against sheltered workshops. The biggest argument labor attorneys could make is that the FLSA of 1938 runs afoul of newer federal provisions under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. As the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission details, the ADA protects disabled Americans from discrimination in employment, public services and accommodations, and telecommunications. These two employee laws are clearly non-compatible with each other. After all, isn’t paying disabled employees less because they are disabled and thereby less productive a clear cut example of workplace discrimination? Ongoing cases will certainly decide that answer for all Americans in the near future. More on this topic:

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