Oregon agrees to improve work settings for disabled
SALEM — The state of Oregon has agreed to a settlement requiring it to scale back support for segregated workplaces where people with mental disabilities often do menial work for pay below minimum wages, state and federal officials announced Tuesday.
The settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice stems from a class-action lawsuit filed in 2012 alleging that Oregon relies too heavily on so-called "sheltered workshops," where people with disabilities work almost exclusively with disabled co-workers. The state's practice prevented people with disabilities from working alongside non-disabled peers in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, the lawsuit alleged.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of employees in sheltered workshops, and the Department of Justice joined a year leader.
Under the settlement, the state agreed to reduce the number of people in sheltered workshops by 20 percent to a maximum of 1,530 over the next two years. The number of hours worked must drop nearly 30 percent to no more than 66,100.
"Work is a fundamental aspect of most people's lives," Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said in a statement. "People with disabilities deserve opportunities to work alongside their friends, peers, and neighbors without disabilities and to earn fair wages.
The state agreed to stop using sheltered workshops as a first-choice option for young people leaving school or for adults newly eligible for state-funded employment assistance. Instead, the state will develop individual plans and support systems to help people with disabilities work for traditional employers if they prefer it.
Federal officials say they're not trying to close sheltered workshops, but they want to ensure that people who want jobs at traditional worksites have a realistic opportunity to succeed there.
The state also agreed to end a pipeline from public schools to sheltered workshops, which sometimes involved mock workshop activities as part of a special education curriculum, according to federal officials. Young people will now have to receive a career-development plan before leaving school.
Oregon began reducing reliance on sheltered workshops a year after the lawsuit was filed, when then-Gov. John Kitzhaber signed an executive order creating a gradual transition away from them. The settlement requires the state to take specific steps and will be overseen by an independent monitor.
"We are already on track to provide integrated employment opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities," Gov. Kate Brown said in a statement. "This settlement continues our commitment to ensure that all Oregonians are part of the economic recovery."
Since 2013, about 3,900 people with intellectual or developmental disabilities have worked in sheltered workshops in Oregon, according to the Justice Department. Once people begin working in one, they stay for an average of 11 years. More than half earn less than $3 per hour.
In 2012, the DOJ said, only 16 percent of Oregonians with state-funded employment assistance were working in integrated settings.
The settlement is subject to approval by U.S. Magistrate Judge Janice Stewart, who is overseeing the lawsuit. As part of the settlement, the state admits no wrongdoing and maintains that its practices were legal.