U.S. Justice Department threatens to sue Oregon over disabled worker programs

From the Oregonian, July 1, 2012

The United States Department of Justice is warning Oregon to help people with intellectual or physical disabilities find jobs in the community or the federal government will go to court and force the state to do it.

Dr. Jacobus tenBroek 1916-1968 Author, Jurist, Professor, Founder of the National Federation of the Blind

Dr. Jacobus tenBroek 1916-1968 Author, Jurist, Professor, Founder of the National Federation of the Blind

Following a nine-month investigation, the Justice Department sent a 20-page letter to the Oregon attorney general late last week outlining its problems with state programs offering employment and vocational services for disabled workers.

Bottom line: Too many in Oregon are forced to work sub-minimum-wage jobs doing rote tasks in what are called “sheltered workshops.”

READ – letter from the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to Governor John Kitzhaber, 2012

The letter, signed by Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, notes that these disabled workers are segregated from the rest of the population, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Federal law requires states to provide services to people with disabilities in the most community-integrated setting possible.

Investigators reported that they found the majority of Oregon’s workers who are intellectually or developmentally disabled are employed in “highly repetitive, manual tasks, such as folding, sorting and bagging in shared spaces occupied only by other persons with disabilities.”

They described the physical surroundings as “institutional in nature” and with “little natural light.” Some of the workplaces are in industrial parks, making it harder for people to use public transportation or leave to go to lunch or for a break.

Investigators also found more than 52 percent of the workers earn less than $3 an hour and “some earn only a few cents per hour.” The average was $3.72 an hour.

Erinn Kelley-Siel, director of the Department of Human Services, released a statement Monday saying that she is “disappointed” by the Justice Department’s findings and that her agency is already at work on improving vocational services.

The state of Oregon spends $30 million a year on sheltered workshops for people with disabilities. In March 2012, according to state data, 1,642 people worked in sheltered workshops. By contrast, 422 workers were employed in the community with support, such as job coaching or help navigating the bus system.

Justice officials acknowledge that sheltered workshops “may be permissible placements for individuals who choose them.” But they note that others “remain unnecessarily — and often indefinitely — confined to segregated workshops.”

Investigators find the state “has denied or failed to provide” community support.

The findings pleased advocates.

Disabled workers and others have argued that it would be much cheaper for the state, in the long run, to pay for programs that help people find and keep jobs in the community that pay minimum wage or higher.

In January, the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Oregon and Southwest Washington along with eight individuals representing thousands of Oregonians with intellectual or physical disabilities filed a class-action lawsuit against Gov. John Kitzhaber and top managers at the Department of Human Services.

Since then, the state’s move to dismiss the suit has been denied and advocates hope their lawsuit will set a national precedent.

“This is just a giant stick over the head of the state to settle our lawsuit,” said Michael Bailey of Portland, who serves as president of the National Disability Rights Network. “Because if they don’t, the Department of Justice will come in as a party,” bringing with it almost unlimited resources.

Justice Department officials declined to say Monday how long they will give Oregon to show improvement.

Instead a spokesman referred back to the letter, which urges “swiftly addressing the areas that require attention.”

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