As we discussed in our last post, the state of Oregon and Governor John Kitzhaber are facing a serious challenge to the state’s sheltered workshop system for disabled Oregonians. A class action lawsuit led by the organization Disability Rights Oregon (which the United States Department of Justice joined as a co-plaintiff at the beginning of April) claims that Oregon’s failure to provide employment support and opportunities to disabled individuals unfairly segregates them in terms of their employment opportunities and constitutes a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The federal government and the other plaintiffs claim that the system currently shunts individuals with serious developmental or intellectual disabilities into workshops where they perform menial and rote tasks for well below minimum wage, and without the opportunity for training or advancement. Plaintiffs would prefer that the state provide disabled individuals with job counseling and other forms of employment support so that they can be eligible to work in integrated workplaces, with both disabled and non-disabled employees.
ADA Lawsuit and the Governor’s Response
The original plaintiffs – Disability Rights Oregon, the Center for Public Representation, and two private law firms who represent eight people with disabilities, as well as United Cerebral Palsy of Oregon and Southwest Washington – filed their case in January 2012. However, it seems that the Justice Department’s recent involvement in the case may have prompted the governor to take more seriously the need to change Oregon’s policies regarding the employment of disabled individuals.
The Oregonian recently reported that, two weeks after the Justice Department joined the case, Gov. Fitzhaber issued an executive order that affirmed a state plan to help severely disabled Oregonians obtain and maintain jobs in the general workforce. The main point of the plan, called Employment First, is to stop the cycle whereby disabled students graduate from high school and immediately begin working in sheltered workshop environments.
Employment First’s Goals
The fifteen-page long executive order contains orders for the Oregon Department of Human Services to adopt an integrated employment plan by November of this year. Combating the idea that the state unlawfully segregates disabled workers into sheltered workshops, the Employment First plan also aims gradually to decrease funding for workshops with the aim of stopping funding for workshop placement by July 2015. The governor also appointed the current deputy director of the state’s Office of Developmental Disabilities Services, Mike Maley, as the Statewide Employment Coordinator for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. As the Employment Coordinator, Maley will help implement the governor’s new initiatives.
While the order refuses to admit that the measures included in the Employment First plan are legally required, Gov. Fitzhaber seems to be trying to address the concerns raised by the lawsuit. For their part, the plaintiffs sound cautiously optimistic about the potential for the plan to reduce the segregation of disabled workers out of the general workforce and into sheltered workshops. The main concerns with Employment First, according to Bob Joondeph, the executive director of Disability Rights Oregon, are with the plans enforceability and whether it would continue to allow employers to pay disabled workers a ‘sub-minimum’ wage.
No doubt, the governor’s executive order is not the end of this case. As the policy continues to develop, it will be interesting to see whether the plaintiffs continue their suit. It will also be important to note what sort of real-world impact the Employment First plan will have in regards to reducing discrimination against disabled employees.
If you or someone you know has experienced employment discrimination because of a disability, please contact one of our attorneys to learn more about your rights.