workshop picI’ve been stewing and talking about the Sheltered Workshop Situation for several months and now, World, here’s Part One of my rant –

The Loud Opposition About Pay

Alright, we’re Americans. So let’s start with money.
When the subject of sheltered workshops and monetary exploitation comes up, I ask myself,  Based on whose values? Whose choice? Whose self-worth? and Who is deciding what makes a person worthy or feel worthy. It is true a person in a sheltered workshop may make .25 cents an hour. They may make $2 an hour. (This is where you gasp in horror.) Most commonly those few dollars a week are earned doing what is called “piece work.”

Let me explain “piece work.”

Let’s say – for the sake of math – it takes an average able bodied worker one hour to bind together 100 books. And the average pay for this job is $10.00 an hour. It is a simple, repetitive job, and a particular company has a steady need for it. OK. Now let’s say that a person can use the simple tools necessary and handle the binding process, but does not have the capacity – for whatever reason – to do 100 an hour. This is where a fair balance is struck. Instead of paying by the hour, the company pays by the book. This (for the sake of math) is .10 per book. This allows any person to come in and be paid fairly. If one person can do 150 books an hour – they make $15 for that hour. But if a person can only do 20 books, they make $2.00 for that hour. See? If the per piece wage is based originally on a fair scale, I don’t see what’s the big deal.

I have been involved with piecework much of my life. When I was a kid (child labor laws are different for family businesses, btw) I worked for piecework many – many – many times. And so did my friends. And when I grew up, I still did. Some people worked very quickly and got paid more than me for producing more, and some people spent more time wandering and sipping pop and chatting, and were less productive than me. OK – that’s piece work in a nutshell.

Now, many sheltered workshops contract jobs from local businesses that are based on the piecework model. This allows people of all abilities to contribute what they can to the project and get their share of the contract paid to them. For many people in the workshop model, this is less than minimum wage. There are people who work at a very slow pace due to a wide variety of circumstances involving their level of abilities and even more complex issues, like behavioral outbursts or seizures.

Joe, as an example, may only complete 50 books all day. Joe may have dexterity issues that make his progress slow, but this particular task is important because it is also helpful to improving his hand strength and his occupational therapist not only approves but encourages his involvement in this project. Let’s say he also did an art project in the afternoon, instead of books. So, at the end of the day, there will be $5 added into Joe’s paycheck. And for Joe, that may be a good day. When Joe’s paycheck arrives in his bank account and he has made about $20, let’s say. He beams over the compensation and reminds his family that he is saving his money to buy a new game system.

His sister may suggest, “Joe, would you rather work at the Zoo this summer?” (Because there is a special program that has allowed Joe to volunteer in summers previous. It would require some extra effort in regards to transportation by Joe’s family, but they are willing to make arrangements.)

“Will I be paid?” asks Joe.

“No,” his sister reminds him, “This is a volunteer position.”

“No.” Joe decides, “I’m saving.”

There are folks who assert that people working in a workshop program don’t understand the value of money. I have noticed that most of the people I’ve talked to appreciate the fact that they earn a paycheck. In my experience, that paycheck is a critical component to the feeling of self-worth and dignity that a workshop environment facilitates. I have seen people with great challenges beam at the description of their work.

The argument has been shared, “I would rather my family member volunteer than work in an environment that only pays a fraction of a lifestyle of minimum wage.” Well, that’s all well and good, but what does your family member want? That’s the real deal. I’m not putting a value of dollars over ambition and I feel that if a person thrives in a volunteer environment over a paid environment and their basic needs are met – go for it. Hell, that’s me most days.

Let us not forget that the workshop has also hired people who both work alongside and care for the clients. The ratio varies, but one I know of personally has a 5 to 1 ratio of caregivers making sure that everyone in their shop environment is safe and motivated.

The People

There is a second point to the money argument. Let me ask, what do you enjoy most about your job? When surveyed, the most common answer is that a person must like the people they work with. In fact, why a person keeps a job is more often because of satisfaction wihin the work environment than about the pay.

This is also why I am surprised at sweeping assumptions about the sheltered workshop format. Again, from my own experience, the people involved in the workshop programs are working side by side with their peers, friends they have made, associates who help them, and the environment is created for their safety and improvement.


There are concerns raised that the workshop keeps people segregated from the community workforce. Well, doesn’t every job? I mean, I don’t see factory, aka “blue collar” workers setting up shop in the office next to the men and women in suits and heels.

Have you ever noticed at a company party how the people from each department tend to sit and stay with their own department, even outside of the office? Why is that, do you think? Could it be because these are their friends? These are the people they have something in common with? Sometimes, yes, an IT guy becomes friends with a mechanic. It can happen. My point is this, there are some people whose challenges make them uncomfortable, and sometimes even unsafe, in unsupervised environments. SOME PEOPLE. That does not mean they don’t deserve the dignity of having a place to work, the option to be social with their peers, in addition to the most basic of needs: safety.

Again, this is the starter of my opinions and sharing of facts about sheltered workshops and this first section comes from my own experiences. I do not discount the fact that there have been people exploited by programs and I am not opposed to reevaluating the system at large. But I feel strongly* that these exploitations are the exception and not the rule. I also feel strongly that there are two groups pushing people into sheltered workshops as their only option, schools and the business community, and this friends, must change. See Part Two: What Forces People into Sheltered Workshops? And finally, What is The Answer to the Sheltered Workshop Question?