Earlier this month, the Oregonian published an article reporting that the United States Department of Justice joined a lawsuit against Governor John Kitzhaber and the state of Oregon that demands changes to the state’s “sheltered workshop” system for individuals with severe disabilities. The fact that the Justice Department intervened as a plaintiff into the case is worth noting – as is the Governor’s response – because it seems that the employment landscape for severely disabled Oregonians will be changing in the coming months and years.
What Are Sheltered Workshops?
Sheltered workshops are work centers, often housed in large warehouses, where individuals with serious intellectual or developmental disabilities can be employed as laborers. According to federal law, employers are allowed to pay such disabled people what is called a ‘sub-minimum wage,’ which often amounts to under one dollar per hour. These workshops are often run by charities, and they claim that the disabled workers and their families are often more comfortable with the idea of them working in a safe and structured environment, rather than being subject to the stresses and difficulties of joining the general workforce.
Class Action Against the State of Oregon
In October of 2011, the Justice Department began investigating Oregon’s actions in regards to sheltered workshops. They found that, since the 1990s, the number of disabled people working in sheltered workshops had doubled to 2600. Meanwhile, over the last ten years, the percentage of disabled people employed outside of sheltered workshops had reduced by nearly half. As of now, approximately 61% of disabled Oregonians labor in sheltered workplaces, while only 16% are employed at integrated workplaces (places where both disabled and non-disabled people are employed). The Justice Department believed that these trends and the disparity between employment rates at sheltered workshops and integrated workplaces might be evidence that the state of Oregon was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
In January 2012, private citizens began a class action based on the Justice Department’s concerns, in a case called Lane v. Lane v. Kitzhaber. The Center for Public Representation, Disability Rights Oregon, and two private law firms began to represent eight people with disabilities, as well as United Cerebral Palsy of Oregon and Southwest Washington, in a suit demanding changes to Oregon’s sheltered workshop system. The plaintiffs, who were joined by the federal government at the beginning of April, want the state to provide intellectually and developmentally disabled Oregonians with job coaching and other types of professional support so that they have the opportunity to work in integrated environments. They argue that by failing to provide such opportunities and support, the state is essentially segregating disabled workers into the low-paying, dead-end sheltered workshop system.
Oregon’s Department of Human Services, naturally, has disputed the plaintiff’s characterization of how the sheltered workshop system functions. Immediately following the Justice Department’s joining the case, they claimed that the state was continuing to try to balance the needs of disabled employees while respecting the choices of employers, consumers, and families.
In a move that shows how lawsuits actually can work to provoke needed governmental change, two weeks after the Justice Department got officially involved in the case, Oregon’s governor, John Kitzhaber, announced a plan to help more disabled Oregonians transition into the general workforce. We will discuss the outlines of the governor’s plan in our next post.
In the meantime, if you or someone you know has been discriminated against because of a disability, please contact one of our attorneys to discuss your case. Challenging discrimination, as the state of Oregon has shown us, is the most effective way to make it disappear.