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State moves to improve work opportunities, pay for disabled workers

'Employment First' policy to help people with developmental, intellectual disabilities

Read Palo Alto companies making strides in hiring people with disabilities

Read Companies still grappling with hiring people with disabilities

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Until recently, California's main model for training and supplying jobs for people with developmental disabilities focused on placing them in so-called "sheltered" work spaces, where they were isolated from the mainstream workforce in settings exempt from even the minimum wage.

A worker in a sheltered setting made on average $6.24 per hour in 2011. But if employed in a mainstream job, according to the California Department of Developmental Services, that same worker earned on average $9.89 per hour — a 58 percent difference in wage. But the state has one of the lowest rates in the country of persons with developmental disabilities employed in regular workplaces, according to the National Survey of State IDD Agency Day and Employment Services.

But now, thanks to the Employment First Policy bill, AB1041, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2013, the state is working to increase employment in mainstream jobs for people with developmental, intellectual and some neurological conditions, including cerebral palsy and autism.

In December 2014, the state Department of Rehabilitation, Department of Developmental Services and the California Department of Education collaborated on the California CIE (competitive integrated employment) Blueprint for Change, which aims to promote and expand state funding of integrated work sites and day programs; phase out below-minimum wages in state-funded employment; expand training for private employers; and expand supported-employment providers, who help some people with disabilities in their jobs, among other goals.

The program will also direct businesses to develop employment models that encourage hiring people with disabilities. On Aug. 31, the state held a teleconference that included companies that are already implementing workable hiring programs that are disability-inclusive. The business partners included Walgreens, CVS and Teacher's Insurance Annuity Association College Retirement Equity Fund (TIAA-CREF), according to a conference transcript.

While lauding the new policy, advocates said that California's funding for integrated-work programs must also shift away from sheltered settings, since no new significant funding has been added for the additional integrated programs.

Though state and federal funding of sheltered work programs is an estimated $53.6 million this fiscal year — and for integrated work programs $108.1 million — the state's allotment for integrated work actually declined by $5 million from three years ago, according to the California Department of Finance.

Funding the integrated-job programs is crucial to moving people with developmental disabilities toward independence, said Debra Jorgensen, associate managing attorney with Disability Rights California, the state's designated disability protection and advocacy agency.

Working clients of California's regional centers, which coordinate services for people with disabilities, made on average $523 per month in 2012, according to the state Employment Development Department.

That number is far below the federal poverty level, Jorgensen said.

"The effect on the individual under the current funding system is a life dependent on government benefits with limited opportunities," she said. "We field hundreds of calls every year from people who are offered work in sheltered workshops or work crews/enclaves who want to work in real jobs for real pay," she said.

While the state program is still under development, a federal law may lead to faster mainstream employment of people with developmental and other disabilities.

To receive any federal contracts, companies are now required to make 7 percent of their workforce nationwide be persons with disabilities within each job group, or throughout the entire workforce if the company has 100 or fewer employees. The rule, an amendment of Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, went into effect on March 24, 2014, according to the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs.

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