If Ontario’s Minister of Community and Social Services is serious about providing equal pay for people with intellectual disabilities, she might want to turn her attention to Petrolia and Central Lambton.
This week Helena Jaczek was under fire after an investigation by The Toronto Star on sheltered workshops. In many communities, people with intellectual disabilities do piece work in segregated workshops in “employment training” earning just a few cents an hour. The ministry has very little information about just how many people are in the shelter workshops, because many community living organizations didn’t fill out a survey from the ministry.
So Jaczek decided this week that community living groups should stop admitting people to the sheltered workshops. And she vows to find was to provide meaningful employment instead at fair rates of pay.
Some groups have expressed concern the province will simply axe the program leaving people without anything to do and separating them from friends they’ve worked with for years
The minister told the Toronto Star she was committed to moving away from the low-paying jobs to something more inclusive, but she wasn’t sure how.
She might look to Petrolia and Central Lambton, where four years ago, Lambton County Developmental Services decided it was time to change the way they did business.
Clare Hyatt runs Petrolia Enterprises – the business end of LCDS. She says for many years LCDS ran sheltered workshops providing jobs to people for as little as a quarter an hour. Workers would do everything from compile utensil and condiment packages for fast food restaurants to sorting gloves for businesses and making wooden stakes for the construction industry. By 2012, the employees were making $1 an hour and some were not happy – some because they were under paid, others because they didn’t like the work.
“It used to be when people graduated from high school they would come here or go to a day program,” says Hyatt. “We had people coming not because they wanted to work, but because it was a place to go.”
And many of the clients who wanted to work knew they were underpaid and would request LCDS help them find employment elsewhere. “People wanted more work and they should make more money.
Hyatt says LCDS started reevaluating. It was becoming harder to gain the temporary employment contracts because businesses were closing or using off-shore labour for the labour-intensive work.
“We were losing our workforce and we knew we needed to pay people a better wage,” she says adding LCDS got to the point where they knew it was “morally wrong” to continue with the sheltered workshops.
So LCDS began planning and talking to families about moving to a better model. People who wanted to work, worked making minimum wage just like everyone else.
And Hyatt says people who didn’t want to be in a woodworking shop were directed to areas they were interested in, including classes for things such as computers or cooking.
The goal was to make sure everyone had the same amount of support and was doing something “that would ake them happier in their life.”
It wasn’t easy. Parents were immediately concerned. Clients – even those who wanted a change – had a difficult period of adjustment.
Staff was reassigned to new positions to accommodate the changes and it all had to be done within the budget LCDS already had.
And LCDS was – and still is – constantly looking for projects to bring in to Petrolia Enterprise to keep people working making a good wage.
It wasn’t easy, Hyatt says has been worth it.
And while work is about more than money, Hyatt says the change Petrolia Enterprise’s employees was noticeable.
She says the first payday after the change, everyone was smiling. And Hyatt says payday at Petrolia Enterprises is still joyful four years later.
“The pride they had in the job they were doing grew…it gave them a greater sense of value for what they were doing.
“When they go into the Old Poste Office (the gift shop run by Petrolia Enterprises) and see something they helped create, they stop and say ‘I did that; I helped with that.’”
“It showed that their work is something to value… You do value me and you do appreciate the work I do.”
Hyatt says there will always be difficulties finding work and creating new employment for people with intellectual difficulties, but after four years, she says the transition has been a success. “It has been a success in the people working and the value and the pride they get from their work make it a huge success.
“The growing pains and the transition over was difficult but I think everybody is where they want to be.”