Government looks to better integrate people with disabilities into the community
By Vicky Wedig
When Cindy Simonsen walks through the halls of VIP Services, she’s stopped frequently – to oblige a request for a hug from a member of the center’s day services program or to listen to a worker in its shop recount recently accolades for a fine job cleaning an area rest stop.
Workers, who have disabilities, are eager to introduce themselves, shake the hand of a visitor and explain the projects they’re working on.
Among their jobs are to assemble springs, affix labels on bottles, fold instructions and insert them in to bags, thread screws into nuts, and test valves for water bottles for animals.
The assembling and packaging jobs are contracted mostly through Walworth County manufacturers with VIP Services in Elkhorn where nearly 100 individuals with disabilities work daily.
The center is one of 79 facilities in the state referred to as sheltered shops – facilities that are licensed to pay less than the minimum wage to people with disabilities.
New Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services regulations that went into effect March 17, 2014, threaten the existence of such shops by requiring that services to individuals with disabilities – primarily employment and residential settings – be integrated, not segregated, said Simonsen, VIP’s director.
Under the rule, settings may not have the qualities of an institution and must be integrated in and facilitate an individual’s full access to the community, according to a letter from U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin.
The intent of the law is to give people with disabilities more choices, she said. The philosophy is one of civil rights – that everyone has the right to be a full participating member of their community, she said.
However, the law caused alarm among clients of VIP Services who feared they might no longer be able to come to work there as some have done for a quarter century or more.
Family members of VIP clients weighed in on the legislation during a public comment period that ended Sept. 2, 2014.
“My son has been working in a center-based facility for several years. His workplace is as important to him as mine is to me,” wrote Randy Hawkins, of Lake Geneva, whose son, Cody, has a chromosomal abnormality and works at VIP Services. “The thought that this healthy, safe and supportive environment may be in jeopardy because some people want to eliminate this choice is of great concern to us.”
The legislation originated through the U.S. Department of Health and the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services. Compliance with the regulations is tied to Medicaid funding, which pays for about half of VIP’s operations, Simonsen said.
States were required to submit a five-year plan for becoming compliant with the new regulations, specifics of which are hazy, Simonsen said.
Wisconsin has submitted its plan, but it hasn’t been approved yet.
“We don’t know what’s in it or what kinds of changes we’ll have to make,” Simonsen said.
She said sheltered shops being shut down is still a possibility.
“Nothing is certain,” she said.
The Walworth County Board passed a resolution in October 2014 to support the continuation of VIP Services’ center-based employment and day services programs for people with disabilities.
“The Walworth County Board of Supervisors is concerned that laws will be enacted and interpreted to present organizations like VIP Services from receiving federal funding,” the resolution reads. “And without agencies like VIP Services and the important programs they offer, many disabled citizens would become isolated and deprived of the ability to interact with other people and to experience the feeling of self-worth that comes from accomplishment of work.”
County Administrator David Bretl said in researching the rule to write the resolution, he learned that some states like Missouri failed to submit a transition plan to the federal government.
“Some states just threw in the towel on these sheltered workshops, and the concern was Wisconsin would do that too,” he said.
The Kansas City (Mo.) Star reported in August 2014 that the government views sheltered workshops as discriminatory and wants to integrate people with disabilities into competitive jobs that pay at least the minimum wage. Defenders of the workshops say not everyone with a disability can get and hold down a job in the open market, the newspaper reported.
Simonsen said sub-minimum wage pay is part of the controversy. She said pay for employees in VIP Services workshop is commensurate. VIP conducts a survey each year of packaging and assembly jobs and comes up with an average pay. The current rate is $8 an hour. VIP employees are paid a percentage of that $8-an-hour average based on their productivity, Simonsen said. The average productivity rate of VIP employees is about 20 percent, which translates to $1.60 an hour.
The deadline for organizations to become compliant with the law is March 17, 2019. At that point, Simonsen said, VIP Services will still exist but its role will – and already has begun to – change.
VIP has always helped clients secure employment within the community whenever possible but is now making greater efforts to connect people with their communities in other ways, Simonsen said.
She said when asked how they’d like to spend a perfect day, many VIP clients say they’d go shopping at Walmart and eat at McDonald’s. The agency is showing clients that more options are available in their communities – banks, post offices, medical facilities and social groups.
“We’re helping our people prepare for the inevitable,” which is that they will have more options, Simonsen said.