Oregon U.S. Attorney Amanda Marshall, joined by Bob Joondeph, executive director of Disability Rights Oregon, announces that the U.S. Department of Justice has joined a federal lawsuit that accuses Oregon of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Brent Wojhan/The Oregonian Oregon unlawfully segregates people with disabilities in sheltered workshops instead of providing them more work opportunities in the public midst, federal authorities allege.
In a news conference Monday, officials with the U.S. Justice Department said they have joined a class-action lawsuit filed by people with disabilities against Gov. John Kitzhaber and the state of Oregon last year, demanding changes to the sheltered workshop system.
As recently as the 1990s, Oregon was a national leader in providing workplace supports for citizens with significant developmental and intellectual disabilities, allowing them to join the general workforce. But the number of people toiling in the workshops has more than doubled since then to 2,600, according to the Justice Department.
Sixty-one percent of those disabled Oregonians now labor in sheltered workshops, often earning less than minimum wage, while just 16 percent are employed at businesses with integrated workforces, said Eve Hill, a senior counselor to the assistant U.S. attorney general for civil rights. The percentage of those employed outside workshops has dropped nearly in half in roughly a decade.
Justice Department officials began in October 2011 to investigate those disparities as evidence of violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, better known as the ADA.
“We know we can do much better,” said Amanda Marshall, the U.S. attorney for Oregon, during an afternoon news conference in Portland to announce that the U.S. government was intervening as a plaintiff in Lane v. Kitzhaber.
Erinn Kelley-Siel, director of the Oregon Department of Human Services, noted the state’s disappointment that the U.S. Department of Justice filed what amounts to a first-of-a-kind lawsuit.
“To the best of our knowledge, no other state has been sued on the grounds that sheltered workshops themselves are violations of the ADA,” she wrote. “During the past year, Oregon has made significant and time-intensive efforts to settle this matter through numerous meetings and communications with (the Justice Department), and Oregon continues to believe that these issues should be resolved through negotiation and not in court.”
Kelley-Siel noted that the state continues to work to ensure what she described as a “balanced and reasonable implementation of employment policies” for workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities, “while respecting consumer and family choice.”
Charity officials who run sheltered workshops often say that workers and their families prefer them to labor in warehouses that provide a safe, nurturing environment.
The lawsuit challenges what it describes as Oregon’s failure to give enough people with disabilities the chance to work in the general workforce, rather than relegating them to sheltered workshops. Those workshops, set up in warehouses across the state, most often amount to dead-end jobs that typically pay piece-rate wages that amount to less than the federal minimum wage, critics say.
Federal law allows employers to pay people with disabilities what is known as sub-minimum wage. Records show that many Americans who fall into that category earn less than $1 an hour.
Lane v. Kitzhaber was so named because it pits Paula Lane, who earned as little as 40 cents an hour in a sheltered workshop in Beaverton, against Gov. John Kitzhaber as Oregon’s chief executive. The lawsuit aims to provide workshop laborers such as Lane, who has multiple disabilities including autism, with job coaches and other professional supports so that they can work at regular jobs in the public midst, said Bob Joondeph, executive director of Disability Rights Oregon.
As it stands, he said, the majority of working Oregonians with serious disabilities find themselves segregated into workshop settings. They often toil in jobs for nonprofits that pay poorly and sometimes give participants practice work when there are no jobs for them to do.
Oregon has not developed adequate services to offer people a chance to work outside the workshops, Joondeph said.
“A person cannot choose to use a service,” he said, “that is not made available to them.”