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July 11, 2015

Accounting for Sheltered Workshops

Readers will remember the recent case of Terri-Lynn Garrie, an intellectually disabled Ontarian woman who was paid just $1.25 an hour as a labourer at a packaging company for 10 years.

In the ground-breaking ruling filed last year, the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal awarded her $142,124 in lost wages, $19,613 in lost income for discriminatory termination and $25,000 in compensation for “injury to her dignity, feelings and self respect.”

We could avoid that kind of situation in Nova Scotia by changing how we think of government supports for those who cannot pursue regular employment.

If you total the annual federal, municipal and provincial grants to the 27 sheltered workshops in Nova Scotia, known as Adult Service Centres and associated as 'New Directions', you get $28,404,968. Divided among 3000 workers  (my very rough guess), you get $9468/year each.  Workers are euphemistically called 'clients'.

In addition, the workshops produce $8,355,868 in sales annually - another $2,785/year for each client.

For their labour, workshop clients receive up to a few dollars a day in the form of a stipend.

The grants go directly to the 27 agencies. By analogy, Nova Scotians receiving EI benefits would have payments go directly to their landlord or to Sobey's. We wouldn't stand for that. It seems we have been persuaded that some Nova Scotians are completely unable to fend for themselves, so we give their benefits to a third party instead.

This is the kind of circular argument so often used against people with disabilities.  "It's obvious this person can't manage money - they don't even have a chequebook!"  And with that, we won't let them have anything to put in the chequebook.  Meanwhile, we make poor financial decisions on their behalf - preventing them from having assets, planning for their future, or exercising choice.

At the same time, many people working in sheltered workshops are receiving living allowances for group homes of various kinds, assistance at home and work, or self-managed care. From this 2008 article, I'm estimating that these costs are at least $12,000 a year. Again, in most cases, these payments are made directly from the province to the provider.

Totaling  the government payments, you get $21,468 per participant.  An average figure, and I'm sure there are many complications, but we're in search of solutions, not problems.

Meanwhile, we have some other rules in play, like minimum wage legislation, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and legislation about guardians and incompetency.

The minimum wage in Nova Scotia is $10.60 - $21,200 a year. Adult Service Centers are exempted, creating a class of Canadians to whom minimum wage legislation doesn't apply.  We need to take care with this important measure of our fairness.

Article 19 of the oft-cited-but-rarely-observed UN Convention requires that:
a. Persons with disabilities have the opportunity to choose their place of residence and where and with whom they live on an equal basis with others and are not obligated to live in a particular living arrangement; 
b. Persons with disabilities have access to a range of in-home, residential and community support services, including personal assistance necessary to support living and inclusion in the community, and to prevent isolation or segregation from the community; and 
c. Community services and facilities for the general population are available on an equal basis to persons with disabilities and are responsive to their needs.
and Article 27 requires signatories to:
b) Protect the rights of persons with disabilities, on an equal basis with others, to just and favourable conditions of work, including equal opportunities and equal remuneration for work of equal value.
And in case you haven't heard me quote the Charter of Rights in the last 5 minutes:
15. (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.
Here's the deal:

Pay the amounts directly to the participants, as if it was a wage.  They or their guardians can then choose which programs to participate in and pay for them.  Many of the other conditions of the various programs would apply - some means testing, coordination of benefits - whatever.

In case you think this is just sleight of hand:
  • It respects the Equal Protection section of the Charter
  • It respects the living and wage provisions of the UN Convention
  • It respects the province's minimum wage laws (and future increases)
  • It acknowledges the power of the marketplace
  • It affirms ideas of independence, self reliance and choice
  • It transforms people from commodities to consumers
It makes sheltered workshops accountable to their customers, not to government.

None of the underlying concepts are new.  Choice, Equality and Good Lives in Inclusive Communities, a roadmap for transforming the Nova Scotia Services to Persons with Disabilities Program, was submitted to The Honorable Denise Peterson‐Rafuse Minister of Community Services by The Nova Scotia Joint Community‐Government Advisory Committee on Transforming the Services to Persons with Disabilities (SPD) Program in June 2013.

That document has all the right ideas, and includes the notion of paying supports directly to beneficiaries.  Another way of doing the same thing would be a guaranteed income, which has occasionally been floated in Canada.

So every Friday full-time participants would get a deposit for $424 in their bank account.  Their share of profits from sales at their place of work is deposited separately.  They'd get a bill for overhead and specific services provided, such as attendant care, meals and transportation.  They'd get a bill for their housing with similar additions.

There will be a thousand objections.  "Some people will need special lunches."  "Some will choose not to participate."  Some will need highly skilled attendants."  "Some will be more productive than others."  These are insignificant compared with the message of fairness and equality.  

Participants or legal guardians would pay the bills.  If there was anything left they could contribute to an RDSP or buy a Mother's Day present.  If the work at some workshop was too hard or the attendant care inadequate, they could shop elsewhere.  Workshops would respond to market forces - hiring more attendants, producing better meals, cutting overhead, turning up the heat.  Some workers might see the attraction of entering the workforce - to make more money or get retirement benefits.  That would ease the burden on the taxpayer.

Once again, all I ask is that my questions get answered:  Are my calculations plausible?  Did we mean anything by accepting the roadmap?  Is anyone doing anything else?  This idea is simple, easily implemented and profoundly empowering.

It's like buying something.  If you don't like it, don't spend your money.  Jenn Power of L'Arche wrote in an article entitled 'The Right to Choose":
People with intellectual disabilities should have a diverse range of employment options to choose from.
There is no better way to ensure choice than to enable people economically.  We can be proactive, or deal with the chaos when courts challenge the present model.  Just a  matter of time.

Gus Reed

ps another useful article.


Anonymous said...

I'm honoured by the link to my own article at the bottom. I really like this analysis. I only disagree with the proposed solution.

It needs to be remembered that few sheltered workshop participants got there without family consent. So giving the money directly won't protect peoples' rights because to me a sheltered workshop financed with individualized funding is not much improved from one that is financed directly by government.

In fact, privately operated workshops usually have even less oversight than the government agency version.

I think the better answer is what they've done in states south of the border where either courts or legislators or both have said "You can't operate sheltered workshops." [Period].

Wrong is wrong. Is illegal to pay a woman or a cultural minority or a transgender individual less than minimum wage. Good! But why is this one group of people exempt from this basic respect? To me it doesn't matter what journey the money takes. We should simply not be congregating and segregating people with intellectual disabilities. If they were getting minimum wage that's certainly an improvement but to simply stop ghettoizing people would be the better decision and to refocus and redouble our efforts on inclusive outcomes (including real jobs) is what the post-1970s should be all about.

Gus Reed said...

Thanks very much. My first thought was to do as you propose, but I was persuaded that, in spite of their shortcomings, sheltered workshops do provide value to participants and a wholesale abandonment would have unforeseen consequences.
The incentives in sheltered workshops are upside down - because government funding is by headcount, there's little reason to actually train and graduate people. If your comfortable salary depends on having some number of suitable clients, there's no reason to jeopardize that.
I don't buy the segregation argument completely. People seek out like-minded and compatible friends and associates all the time.
I might not have said enough about what a person could do with the money. Anything! A gym membership, real training, a better wheelchair, personal services enabling employment, financial planning.
Sheltered workshops would be transformed into specialty service centers providing these and similar services. Customers would want and need providers with very particular experience. Job training and other kinds of education require suitable experience, and a 'specialty service center' could be very appropriate. Not ghettoization, but an opportunity for scarce and special resources to be brought to bear in tough circumstances.