In a case that could open doors for thousands of Minnesotans with disabilities, a large disability services provider has settled a state human rights charge and agreed to give its workers a shot at regular jobs.
Opportunity Partners, a Minnetonka-based nonprofit, has for years classified individuals with disabilities who labor in its facilities as “clients” or “persons served,” even though they perform actual work for pay and may aspire to be considered regular employees.
Many of these individuals are paid less than the minimum wage.
In a settlement with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, Opportunity Partners has agreed to change its hiring practices so that the roughly 2,000 individuals it serves will have the chance for regular work at a competitive wage. The nonprofit did not admit wrongdoing, but said it will make it clear that anyone who receives job supports or other services will be considered for employment, regardless of their disability or status as a recipient of disability services.
“This changes the paradigm,” state Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey said in an interview. “The more people say it out loud, that all people should have the opportunity for gainful employment ... the more individuals who make the decisions on hiring will be open to actually hiring individuals with disabilities.”
Armando Camacho, president and chief executive of Opportunity Partners, said he does not expect the agreement to result in major changes in the way his organization provides services. It has been “extremely rare,” he said, for individuals served by the agency to seek regular employment at the agency. Of the 2,000 people served by Opportunity Partners, only one person applied for a staff position in 2015, he noted.
“Nonetheless, we are pleased to be able to now make clear that anyone is eligible to apply and be considered for employment, including individuals we serve or have served in the past,” Camacho said.
National advocates praised the settlement, saying it resolves one of the first legal challenges to a system of disability employment that has long been decried as discriminatory.
Across Minnesota and the nation, disability services providers such as Opportunity Partners bring in individuals to package products and do other light assembly work on contract for large companies. In Minnesota, more than 100 of these agencies hold special certificates from the U.S. Department of Labor that allow them to pay workers based on their productivity instead of a fixed hourly wage. Pay through this system, known as “piecework,” often amounts to just pennies on the dollar.
A recent analysis by Minnesota’s workforce agency found that 15,400 Minnesotans with disabilities work for agencies that hold these special certificates to pay subminimum wages.
Many individuals also receive job coaching, transportation and other services funded through Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the poor. The line between worker and service recipient has long been blurry, with many agencies referring to workers as “consumers,” “clients” or “participants,” instead of employees.
“This is a milestone,’’ said Cheryl Bates-Harris, of the National Disability Rights Network in Washington, D.C.
Bates-Harris said the settlement finally makes it clear that people who receive employment supports, regardless of their disabilities, should be treated on an equal basis with all other workers. “It doesn’t solve the problem of segregation,’’ she said, “but if people have the confidence to say, ‘I can move up,’ that gets to be contagious. This will embolden others.”
‘We’re still workers’
The settlement arose from a human rights complaint brought last year by Bradford Teslow, 59, of St. Paul, who works at a Bloomington packaging plant owned by Opportunity Partners.
Teslow, who has a cognitive disability brought on by brain injuries, said he applied to be a site supervisor but was told his application would not be considered because he was a “person served,” and not a regular employee. Teslow said the denial was discriminatory “on its face,” because all the people who received services at the Bloomington plant had disabilities.
“I felt they were putting up artificial barriers” to advancement, Teslow said. “We may be getting services, but we’re still workers and we should be treated like everyone else.”
Camacho challenged the contention that disability service organizations like Opportunity Partners are holding people back from mainstream employment at a competitive wage. Last year, he said, his agency helped 145 individuals land competitive jobs with an average starting wage of $10.16, and helped another 166 individuals remain successfully employed in competitive positions at an average wage of $11.29 per hour.
“We work very hard to help people with disabilities secure competitive community employment, where we continue to provide job coaching services as needed,” Camacho said.
The agreement comes as state and federal regulators intensify scrutiny of practices that segregate people with disabilities. Last month, the Obama administration issued guidance on disability rights, asserting that other opportunities need to be made available to the millions who spend the majority of their hours in segregated work centers and day programs.