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Proposals to change Competitive Employment Act could impact work at DAC

DaNan Staebler says she enjoys her work at the Stevens County Developmental Achievement Center. Rae Yost/Stevens County Times

As she was busy washing out plant containers one morning, DaNan Staebler said she was saving money for a vacation.

She planned to go to Los Angeles with her family.

"I like to be here every day," Staebler said of working at the Stevens County Developmental Achievement Center in Morris.

Clients such Staebler, who has developmental disabilities, work each day at jobs inside the DAC. Other clients work at jobs outside the DAC.

Charlie Oakes, the executive director of the Stevens County DAC, said federal legislative bills that would dramatically transform the Competitive Employment Act threaten jobs for clients such as Staebler. Bills have been introduced to phase out Section 14c of the Competitive Employment Act.

Supporters of the phase-out said the section allows companies to unfairly pay people with disabilities an extremely low wage for work.

Arc of Minnesota's Rich Stroebe said in an email response to an interview request from the Stevens County Times that the organization is developing a response to the 14(c) dialogue currently being hosted by the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy. Arc is a national group that advocates for the intellectually and developmentally disabled.

Stroebe said Arc could not release a formal statement at this time but the formal statement would reflect the Arc U.S. position that says changes should protect the interests of those affected by the change. Stroebe shared the Arc national position of: "Publicly funded employment programs should also... build infrastructure and supports needed to phase out the issuance of subminimum wage certificates, increase opportunities for competitive integrated employment, and put in place safeguards to protect the interests of people affected by this shift."

To Oakes, a phase-out would mean the DAC would not be able to provide jobs to many of its clients jobs.

"There's a movement again this year to eliminate a program we use for work skills training for people with severe disabilities," Oakes said.

Arc said on its national website that an issue for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is many people with intellectual and developmental disabilities "have been placed in 'prevocational' programs and 'disability-only' workshops where they are paid below minimum wage and have little expectation of moving into jobs where they work alongside people without disabilities."

When the competitive employment act is discussed, the key for the DAC, and other services like it, is "severe disabilities," Oakes said

Those seeking the changes want people with disabilities to be paid a fair wage, Oakes said. For those with disabilities such as blindness, for example, a change is needed, he said.

"There are no reasons why people with vision problems can't earn (at least) a minimum wage," Oakes said.

But what about people with more severe disabilities? Oakes said. What about people who aren't able to perform in the competitive workforce? Oakes said.

The voices of people such as Staebler aren't always heard in discussions at the federal level, Oakes said.

The DAC and its supporters are speaking out for clients, but more voices can help, Oakes.

What's at stake is a key piece of a DAC client's life, Oakes said.

Granted, clients such as Staebler do not make minimum wage while cleaning plant pots for a business, Oakes said.

Yet, clients who insert a component piece for Superior Industries, can make as much as an employee at Superior, Oakes said. For example, if a DAC client who assembles a piece at a 30 percent production level of a direct Superior employee, the DAC clients makes that wage, Oakes said. It costs the exact same per piece at the DAC for Superior as it would in their own plant, Oakes said.

DAC clients may not speak or may be restricted to a wheelchair but they are working, Oakes said.

They may be washing plant pots one day or recycling cardboard or shredding documents. The clients also bag ear corn for a company in DeGraff.

Paychecks may not be large but the pride that comes with the work is huge, Oakes said.

"People like to come to work," Oakes said.

"I like it," Staebler said. Staebler said cleaning plant pots reminds her of her deceased mom who grew beautiful flowers.

When the pots were clean, Staebler placed them on a stack to be returned to the plant business.

If the competitive employment act is changed to require minimum wage to be paid for the work done by many DAC clients, Oakes said there would likely be no more work for them.

Research has shown that work is more beneficial than many other activities DAC clients can participate in.

"What's been discovered is that with non-paid activities, people become bored and less satisfied in their lives," Oakes said. "That leads to behavior problems and all kinds of health issues."

The regional public appears to support the DAC's approach with clients based on a recent successful fund-raising effort for an addition. The DAC raised more than $1 million toward an addition project is less than a year.

The DAC is in a temporary location while a $1.7 million construction project is happening. The project will expand the DAC which has outgrown its roughly 40- year old building.

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