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Unpaid wages reveal gaps in labor programs for disabled

Though R.I. reached consent decree with U.S. Department of Justice last year, problems persist

Intellectually and developmentally disabled workers within Rhode Island sheltered workshops — institutions that employ mainly individuals with disabilities — are still being abused on the job, despite the announcement of a consent decree with the state by the U.S. Department of Justice. The decree was issued in April 2014 after a series of stories relating to the exploitation of I/DD workers.

After Charles Moseley, the case’s court monitor, issued a positive progress report Sept. 17, incidents such as one autistic Providence man going unpaid for over a year came to light, provide a reminder of problems deeply ingrained within the system.

The consent decree

The 2014 consent decree requires Rhode Island to reform the state’s services for intellectually and developmentally disabled adults over a 10-year period, The Herald previously reported. It stated that Rhode Island’s services for I/DD adults were highly ineffective, created “unjustified isolation” of people who desired integrated employment and left I/DD youth at “serious risk” of future segregation. These services were deemed violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Supreme Court’s decision in Olmstead v. L.C.

The DOJ reported that 80 percent of I/DD individuals in the state worked in sheltered workshops or in facility-based day programs, and 46 percent did so for over 10 years. They earned an average wage of $2.21 per hour — minimum wage in Rhode Island is currently $9.

The decree stipulated that within 10 years, the state must make 2,000 supported employment placements, in which I/DD employees must be able to interact with non-disabled workers, be paid at least the minimum wage and be able to work the maximum hours they prefer — averaging 20 hours per week. The agreement also necessitates the expansion of outside-of-work services and activities. Each individual must be offered a minimum of 40 work and non-work service hours in total.

The progress report

Moseley said in the progress report that the state made “significant progress in meeting the many performance benchmarks,” including new infrastructure initiatives, improvements in leadership and increased funding.

Moseley reported that the state created new organizations — including the Office of the Consent Decree, the Quality Improvement Initiative, the Sheltered Workshop Conversion Institute and the Conversion Trust Fund — to study the transition from segregated to integrated workplaces for both I/DD individuals.

The report highlights EmploymentFirst, a national initiative with a state chapter that provides I/DD families and individuals with a network and information portal focused on implementing person-centered career development plans.

Moseley also reported that the state made progress on completing an inter-agency Memorandum of Understanding that supports the interaction among the various agencies tasked with the consent decree, which include the Rhode Island Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, the Rhode Island Department of Education and the Rhode Island Office of Rehabilitative Services. The state added an additional $2 million to support services for people with I/DD and ceased funding sheltered workshops, Moseley said in the report.

More changes in BHDDH

As part of its Quality Improvement Initiative, BHDDH has created new pre-qualifications and training for service providers, according to Rhode Island’s Consent Decree Coordinator Andrew McQuaide. The changes are based on the national standard and are derived from the core competencies outlined by the Association of Community Rehabilitation Educators and the Association of People Supporting EmploymentFirst, McQuaide said. 

These quality control initiatives are currently being rolled out, but full implementation will take about one year, McQuaide said. Quality improvement goes beyond licensing. “Licensing is dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s. Quality improvement is how well you are dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s,” McQuaide said.

Previous Quality Improvement Initiatives used claims data from service providers, which are “not necessarily the best data,” according to McQuaide who pointed out that the past administration was essentially using bills that didn’t portray real-time data. The BHDDH is working with the court monitor to better determine what qualifies as an integrated job, McQuaide said. The administration is reviewing programs to ensure they demonstrate not only more individuals in integrated jobs but also that the jobs are “a good fit for the individual themselves.”

Caleb Dyl

Resources for Human Development is one service organization under investigation by the BHDDH for the organization’s failure to support a client. Caleb Dyl, a 21-year-old autistic man worked from August 2014 to July 2015 as a preparation cook at an Applebee’s in Pawtucket three days per week. RHD, a nationwide social services nonprofit funded and licensed by BHDDH, facilitated Dyl’s placement at the restaurant. Dyl began work as part of a training program, but after being visited by a work coach who deemed Dyl a “tireless worker,” Dyl was to begin receiving minimum wage salary in August 2014. His first paycheck came over a year later, in September 2015, only after Applebee’s was contacted by WPRI regarding Dyl’s unpaid status as part of an investigative story. RHD did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“There were miscommunications all around” between RHD, Applebee’s and the family, said Linda Reilly, chief community relations officer at BHDDH. “Someone might have thought someone else was taking care of things, but as it turned out, it was just falling between the cracks.” The BHDDH’s Quality Assurance/Improvement Unit began an investigation when they were notified of the issue, Reilly said.

“It certainly was an unpleasant reminder of the sense of urgency related to all of the work that has been established by the consent decree,” McQuaide said. This incident was a reminder of the long history of abuse that I/DD people within the state have undergone, McQuaide said, referring to Training Thru Placement, a sheltered workshop that abused subminimum wage laws in Providence.

“I wish that I could say that Caleb is unique, … but as we saw at TTP,  it is not unprecedented in Rhode Island for intellectually and developmentally disabled people to be exploited, particularly when it comes to wages.”

McQuaide likens the shift of settings from de-institutionalization of I/DD individuals in the 1970s to today’s shift from sheltered workshops to integrated work. “It’s a philosophy and a policy,” McQuaide said, adding that there are lessons to be learned and that he wants the “department to think about employment as … integral, to the same extent that employment is integral to most of the people across the country. We are saying that employment should be equally integral to all of the people that we serve through the department.”


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