After years of searching, Bradford Teslow thought he had finally found a job that would pay him a livable wage and offer him a shot at advancement.

In 2013, a large disability services organization, Opportunity Partners, offered Teslow, 58, a position at a new state-of-the-art packaging plant in Bloomington. Teslow, who has cognitive disabilities brought on by two head injuries, leapt at the opportunity to prove himself on an assembly line among people without disabilities.

But when he applied for a vacant position as a site supervisor last June, he was flatly denied. Instead of getting an interview, Teslow says he was told in passing one day that his application would not be considered because of his status as a “client,” or “person served,” at Opportunity Partners.

“It was hugely demoralizing,” Teslow said. “The message was, ‘Once you’re a client, you’re always a client.’ There’s no way to move up.”

Now Teslow is accusing Minnetonka-based Opportunity Partners of discrimination in a formal charge filed with the state Department of Human Rights.

The case underscores the precarious position of hundreds of ​Minnesotans with disabilities who rely on disability agencies for on-the-job training and other vocational services. Despite performing real work for real wages, they often are stuck in a legal limbo, unable to fulfill their ambitions because of their status as service recipients.

In a 12-page response to Teslow’s charges, Opportunity Partners said it denied his application for confidentiality reasons, and not because of his disability. The agency said it hasn’t considered any clients’ employment applications since rolling out a new electronic records system in 2012. The system can’t shield clients’ private medical data from co-workers — potentially violating federal privacy laws, the agency said. Teslow also lacked auto insurance, a basic requirement for the job, the agency said.

Referring to the situation as “exceedingly rare,” Opportunity Partners said Teslow is the only client to apply for an unsupported staff position in the past three years.

“Although many of the persons served … at Opportunity Partners perform real work, are paid wages and earn some benefits (such as PTO), they are not ‘employees’ ” as defined under federal law, the agency said.

‘No incentive’

This unusual arrangement — in which people with disabilities are both workers and clients at the same agency — has long been fraught with conflicts, according to disability advocates. An agency like Opportunity Partners stands to lose tens of thousands of dollars in payments through Medicaid and other government programs if it promotes a client to a regular job, they say.

“There is no incentive … to find the client a real job in the community,” said Allison Wohl, executive director of APSE, a national organization that promotes integrated employment.

That’s among the reasons that several states, including Maine, Oregon and Rhode Island, are phasing out state-subsidized workshops where people with disabilities are often paid just cents on the dollar for piece-rate work.

A Star Tribune investigation last fall found that many Minnesotans with disabilities feel trapped in these environments — working hard for low pay but unable to advance into more meaningful work in the community.

“To say that a ‘client’ or ‘person served’ can never be an actual employee … is to consign that person to a permanent status as a second-class worker,” said Nancy Fitzsimons, a professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Teslow says that had he been given an interview, he would have emphasized his ideas for making the assembly line more efficient. That includes separating certain tasks, such as folding, labeling and stacking boxes, on separate tables so workers could do them more quickly. A former physical education teacher, Teslow also planned to emphasize his experience coaching others.

“I have ideas,” he said, “just no one to hear them.”

Teslow’s fight for a promotion has drawn widespread support from his co-workers, who say he has come to represent their long-standing frustrations with a system that often steers them toward low-wage, segregated workplaces. At work, the talkative Teslow is known affectionately as “the Bradster.”

“We’re all rooting for `the Bradster,’ ” said Lashay Green, 24, of Richfield, who works on the same shift as Teslow. “He’s standing up for what we all believe … that everyone deserves a fair shot regardless of their disability.”

‘I’d give it all up’

On a recent evening, after a shift filling hundreds of boxes with truck filters, NewSource workers spoke of their common hope to be treated as employees and not just “clients.”

A spokeswoman for Opportunity Partners said clients at NewSource receive a range of services, including a line leader who provides job training, coaching and supervision. Outside of work, individuals at the plant can also receive services like case management and job placement help, the agency said.

Timothy Thompson, 51, a NewSource worker with a cognitive disability, said he gets “a lot of help” from Opportunity Partners, including a counselor who helps him pay his rent and make doctors’ appointments. Yet, asked if he would forgo these services if it meant he would be treated as a worker, Thompson didn’t hesitate.

“I’d give it all up in a second,” he said. “The services are important, but I think we’d all feel much better knowing we’re actual employees, and not just clients.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Human Rights said Teslow’s discrimination charge is still under investigation.

 

Twitter: @chrisserres