This post is courtesy of Eve Hill, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights
Every day, countless Americans with disabilities are excluded from accessing important ladders of opportunity. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is an important tool for challenging assumptions and discrimination that trap people with disabilities in poverty and segregation. When given the chance, people with disabilities are establishing their rightful place in the greater American workforce and the middle class, and are showing that they, too, can achieve the American Dream. Pedro is one such person.
When Pedro graduated high school in 2010, at age 21, he found himself at home with no job prospects and no career direction. A native Spanish speaker with intellectual disabilities, Pedro’s education had not prepared him to enter the general workforce; instead, he was headed for a life of segregated employment and below-minimum wages.
Pedro attended a Providence, R.I., high school where students with intellectual disabilities participated in an in-school “sheltered workshop,” where there were no students without disabilities. The students spent their school days sorting, assembling and packaging items such as jewelry and pin-back buttons, earning between 50 cents and $2 per hour for their labor. Rather than providing the education and services needed to help them transition into regular jobs, the school prepared students for segregated, below-minimum-wage work in adult sheltered workshops. The U.S. Department of Justice’s 2013 investigation of Rhode Island found that, indeed, the school-based workshop was a direct pipeline to a nearby adult workshop.
Like many before him, Pedro began working at the adult workshop after high school. Staff described Pedro as an excellent worker who stays on task and performs well, but he was paid just 48 cents an hour. And because people who enter this workshop often stay there for decades, and are rarely offered help to move into community-oriented jobs, Pedro’s career outlook was dim.
That all changed in June 2013 when the department entered into an interim settlement agreement with the state of Rhode Island and the city of Providence, requiring the state and city to provide the employment services necessary to help workers at the adult workshop and students at the school-based workshop move into integrated, competitive-wage jobs. At the same time, the Providence Public School District closed the school-based workshop so students with disabilities can focus on education and career preparation.
Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (the agency) announced that it has entered into a settlement agreement with the City of Providence, the Providence School Board and Pedro’s former high school after the agency’s investigation found violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Under the agreement, students will receive back pay for the work they did at the sheltered workshop.
Pedro was interested in the restaurant industry, so in 2013 he joined a culinary arts training program and 12 weeks later, helped by federal and state services, Pedro began working in the kitchen at a restaurant in the community. He has excelled and forged strong working relationships with other employees. Pedro says that he loves his job.
The owner of the company describes Pedro as the heart of the business. “He has a great personality and loves working here,” he says. “But more than just a personality, he does a great job.”
In December 2013, just a few months after starting at the restaurant, Pedro was Employee of the Month. His manager said that Pedro was chosen for the award because “he has changed the culture of the company by inspiring everyone around him to reach higher; he has led by example.” Pedro has become known for his positive work ethic and his commitment to teamwork.
Pedro started his job with a job coach, funded by the state and federal government, but because the restaurant position was such a good match for Pedro and natural supports developed so quickly, Pedro no longer needs coaching, and is now helping the coach train other new employees with disabilities.
Pedro deeply values his new job, where he has the chance to work with peers without disabilities, earn a competitive wage and employee benefits and enjoy the advantages of community employment. His supervisor points out that the company, too, has experienced major benefits. She describes the strong sense of pride in hiring Pedro, and giving him the opportunity to realize his capabilities and participate in the greater American workforce: “It’s a very fulfilling experience to see Pedro mainstream himself, to show responsibility and to see him getting an honest wage for his work.”
Pedro’s life is on a new path – and there’s no looking back.