By LOHR MCKINSTRY Press-Republican and SUZANNE MOORE News Editor
---- — PLATTSBURGH — A move by the state to integrate sheltered workshops could end up closing some — or at least drastically change how they operate.
At Mountain Lake Services in Essex County and Champlain Valley Industries (CVI) in Plattsburgh, officials are preparing for the possible loss of Medicaid dollars that subsidize the employment of the people with developmental disabilities served by those agencies.
“We would have to replace all those Medicaid dollars with contract dollars,” said Advocacy and Resource Center Executive Director Theresa Garrow, referring to the work that comes in to its workshop, CVI, on a contract basis from businesses around the region.
“That’s about $1 million.”
The federal government has told the State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities that work centers must be desegregated in order to continue receiving Medicaid dollars, Garrow said.
So while those employed at them now will not lose their positions, any newcomers with disabilities can come aboard at a sheltered workshop with Medicaid support only if an equal number of non-disabled people are hired.
The exception to that, Garrow said, is if new clients can work at an integrated business in the community.
As well, the centers will no longer be allowed to pay sub-minimum wage, which they have done with permission from the State Department of Labor, Mountain Lake Services Chief Operating Officer Beth McKenna said.
That agency’s workshop, Essex Industries, relies on that system, while CVI bases its pay on prevailing wage.
“We have a certificate, but we don’t use it,” Garrow said.
Opened in 1974 in Mineville, Essex Industries currently employs 75 people with developmental disabilities and 21 non-disabled individuals, among them staff members.
The employees make canoe seats and wooden canoe parts for businesses like L.L. Bean, as well as wooden picnic tables. It had $1 million in contract sales last year.
McKenna said the agency’s position is that a sheltered workshop in Essex County would be very difficult to maintain without state and federal support.
“The lack of employment opportunities is challenging to citizens without disabling conditions,” she said. “When you add a disability, the challenge becomes greater.
“The cost of providing necessary supports, as well as transportation to localities that may have job vacancies, will be prohibitive.”
In a statement, Mountain Lake said the only alternative to the workshop at this point would be for participants to stay home or receive day-habilitation services, since competitive and supported employment in the community is unreasonable for most and limited jobs are available to anyone within Essex County.
“Job opportunities within our large, rural county are limited to a few population centers, such as Lake Placid and Elizabethtown,” the statement said.
“Distance to these jobs represents a transportation nightmare for potential candidates.”
In Plattsburgh, about 65 people with disabilities work at Champlain Valley Industries on a variety of jobs contracted to the agency by area businesses, among them Monaghan Medical and Pactiv Corp.
Another 25 to 30 provide janitorial services, again through contracts, at locations in and around Plattsburgh.
The Medicaid dollars that support the program are intended to help train clients to be ready for competitive employment, Garrow said.
And that has been quite successful.
CVI once had about 125 people in the program, but over time about half transitioned from the work center to employment elsewhere, she said.
And that effort continues, she said.
OUTSIDE THE BOX
Garrow, who has worked in different capacities at CVI for 28 years, says she’s very supportive of many of the changes coming to the program, “but there are some things to be worked through.
“If funding does decline and disappear from the state, there has to be a revenue stream of some sort.”
It’s a time to think outside the box, she said.
And that’s what is happening with some sheltered workshops.
In Fulton County, the Lexington ARC opened a used-clothing store as an integrated employment workshop.
Mountain Lake’s Community and Staff Relations Administrative Assistant Director Elizabeth A. Rutkowski said they’re considering several options, including making Essex Industries an integrated operation.
“We are currently evaluating Essex Industries’ workforce to ensure that we maintain fiscal viability throughout this transformation,” she said by email.
“For example, increasing the non-disabled workforce versus finding alternative services, such as day habilitation, for the disabled is being evaluated.”
WORKED IN THE PAST
Garrow knows it’s possible for work centers to succeed with a mix of disabled and non-disabled employees, for CVI did it some years ago.
“We did a ton of work for (toy maker) Coleco,” she said. “For quite a while, we were fully integrated.”
Contract work came from that company in Montreal, with CVI employees dressing Cabbage Patch dolls and putting the voice boxes in Alf dolls (from the TV show about a fuzzy alien living with an American family).
They also repackaged the weapons that came with a Rambo doll.
As well, Garrow said, “we also had large group of people who worked at Georgia Pacific.
“The community ... has always been very accepting, very open” about participating in CVI’s effort to give employment to people with developmental disabilities, she said.
But the less-than-robust economy complicates matters at present, she said.
“It’s just a matter of enough space, enough work” to go around.
Garrow doesn’t expect CVI will have to close, however.
“In five or six years, we may have to downsize,” she said, “but if the economy booms, we could grow.”
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