In a groundbreaking decision, the Minnesota Human Rights Department found that a large nonprofit likely violated a worker’s civil rights when it denied him a promotion because he received services for a cognitive disability.

State Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey found “probable cause” that Opportunity Partners, one of Minnesota’s largest employers of people with disabilities, discriminated against Bradford Teslow, 59, of St. Paul, who receives state-funded job support services at the Bloomington assembly plant where he packages parts for portable refrigeration units.

Although Opportunity Partners disputes the decision, the Minnetonka-based agency said it is changing its hiring practices to allow recipients of disability services to be considered for regular work at the nonprofit.

Legal experts said the decision is among the first of its kind and highlights the conflicts that many disability service providers face when they provide on-the-job training and other support services to people who also work in their facilities. These workers are often classified as “clients” or “persons served,” even though they perform work and often want to be considered regular employees. Agencies have little incentive to hire these workers, because doing so could cost them thousands of dollars in payments through state and federal disability programs, advocates say.

“This case is a poster child for why so many of these facilities are not a pathway to competitive, integrated employment but are instead a dead end,” said Alison Barkoff, a national disability rights advocate in Washington, D.C., for the Center for Public Representation.

Across Minnesota and the nation, disability service providers such as Opportunity Partners bring in people with a wide range of physical and mental disabilities, from Down syndrome to autism, to package products and do other light assembly work on contract for large companies. Many of these agencies hold special certificates from the U.S. Department of Labor that exempt them from the federal minimum wage and allow them to pay workers with disabilities based on their productivity. Often, their wages amount to pennies on the dollar.

More than 100 entities hold these special certificates in Minnesota. Among the largest holders is Opportunity Partners, which as of June had about 600 workers making less than the minimum wage, according to the nonprofit. Nationwide, an estimated 228,600 individuals are being paid sub-minimum wages under these certificates, which proponents say gives individuals who might not be hired because of a disability a chance to work while developing skills.

A Star Tribune investigation last fall found that many people who work for these entities, often referred to as “sheltered workshops,” want regular jobs at competitive wages but feel trapped because they lack accessible transportation and other support services.

‘Just wanted a shot’

Teslow, who has a cognitive disability and depression brought on by brain injuries, said he “just wanted a shot at an interview” when he applied last summer for a position as a site supervisor at NewSource, the packaging plant owned by Opportunity Partners, which provides job coaching and other vocational services for about 50 workers with disabilities. Yet Teslow was told that his application was not considered because he was a “person served,” and not a regular employee. Teslow alleged that the decision was discriminatory, because all the people served at the Bloomington plant were individuals with disabilities.

“It was like a door had been slammed shut, forever, and that seemed unfair to me and all my co-workers with disabilities,” Teslow said.

After a lengthy investigation, the state human rights commissioner appeared to agree, finding early this month that Teslow was not hired because of his status as a service recipient, or individual with disability. Though not a final ruling, the decision means there is probable cause that discrimination occurred and that Teslow’s complaint can proceed.

In a statement, Opportunity Partners president and chief executive Armando Camacho said, “We respectfully disagree with the Department of Human Rights’ finding of probable cause,” and said the nonprofit was weighing an appeal. At the same time, Camacho said the nonprofit is finalizing a change to its hiring practices “to remove any appearance of discrimination and allow persons we serve to apply for and be considered for direct employment with Opportunity Partners.”

In recent years, the fight for inclusion in the workplace has become the focal point of the disability rights movement. Last year, New Hampshire became the first state in the nation to prohibit employers from paying people with disabilities less than the state minimum wage. Recent federal lawsuits have forced both Oregon and Rhode Island to reduce their reliance on sheltered workshops and to start moving hundreds of workers into more meaningful jobs that pay at least the minimum wage.

Minnesota has fallen behind other states in integrated employment: Only 13 percent of Minnesotans with disabilities who received state services in 2013 worked in the community alongside people without disabilities, among the lowest rates in the nation, according to the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Minnesotans of working age with disabilities are about half as likely to be employed as those without disabilities.

“It’s the next frontier,” said Don Lavin, executive director of Arc Minnesota, a disability rights group, of efforts to expand workplace opportunities for people with disabilities. “But we’re not going to succeed if we think that relying on a single organization, like Opportunity Partners, is the only way to get things done.”


Twitter: @chrisserres