by Rachel Dworkin, archivist
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, but, for disabled workers, employment can be complicated. When the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established the country’s first minimum wage, it included exceptions for tipped workers, prisoners, agricultural workers, and “persons who by reason of illness or age or something else are not up to normal production,” i.e. disabled workers. The law radically altered the employment prospects of disabled workers, and not always in good ways.
In October 1955, the Chemung County Committee for Help for Retarded Children decided to open a sheltered workshop to provide employment for disabled workers. They called their new workshop Capabilities, Inc. The sheltered workshop movement began shortly after the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and really picked up steam in the post-war 1940s as a way for disabled workers to learn or, in the case of wounded veterans, re-learn the skills necessary for gainful employment. Like the proposed Chemung County workshop, they were often run by charitable organizations. All of them paid their workers subminimum wages.
Capabilities, Inc. struggled in the early years. Grants and charitable donations kept them more or less afloat, but they struggled to find paying clients or steady work for their employees. They also struggled to find good employees. They went through four managers in two years and were forced to implement an employee screening process as it soon became apparent that some people were simply not physically or intellectually capable of industrial labor. Finding the right workspace and equipment also proved to be an issue.
In 1960, the Elmira Rotary Club became involved. They donated land for a new facility at 1149 Sullivan Street. A local architect associated with the club donated his time to design a new building free of charge. Two area foundries donated over ten thousand yards of fill needed to level the ground, while the City of Elmira provided power shovels and graders to do the work. The last load of fill was delivered on Christmas Eve. Construction began on February 27, 1961 with various business and labor organizations providing either free labor or building supplies. Once the building was complete, several local manufacturers donated gently-used machines and equipment. In May 1961, Capabilities moved into their new workspace and business quickly grew.
|1149 Sullivan Street|
Despite being originally proposed to help those with intellectual disabilities, by the 1960s, Capabilities only hired those with physical disabilities. New hires were evaluated on their existing skills and were set to perform different tasks to see which department they were best suited for. By that time, Capabilities had a wood-working department, small machine shop, electrical and mechanical assembly departments, secretarial department, and sewing shop. In 1963, New York State selected Capabilities as a pre-vocational evaluation unit and training site. Under this new system, workers who performed well enough would be encouraged to find regular employment within the wider community after a 16- to 26-week period of personal adjustment training.
|Electronics assembly shop, ca. 1960s|
In May 1975, a group of 46 disabled workers at Capabilities signed a petition objecting to the working conditions associated with the training program. They argued that the training was a “joke” and that they were not being hired for outside positions. Workshop officials, they claimed, treated them poorly and were often rude and demeaning and they called for several of them to be fired. The biggest issue though was the pay. In 1975, regular hourly minimum wage as $2.10. For disabled workers, it was 35 cents. For workers being paid by the piece, their wages were calculated as a percentage of what a non-disabled worker could make which meant that they could make just pennies a day. No wonder they were upset! Although some of these issues were resolved, one former employee reported receiving subminimum wages when she worked there in the 1990s.
|Sewing shop, ca. 1960s|
The sad fact is that Federal law still allows employers to pay disabled workers subminimum wages. Currently, the regular Federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, but the disabled minimum wage is just $3.34. Training programs at sheltered workshops are common, but a 2001 study by the Government Accountability Office found that only 5% of disabled workers actually graduate from sheltered workshops to full-pay employment in the wider world. This is especially true for those with intellectual disabilities. Within the last decade, New York State has taken steps to improve conditions for disabled workers. Under state law, disabled workers must be paid at least minimum wage and the state offers a Workers (with Disabilities) Employers Tax Credit to business which hire disabled workers.
Meanwhile, Capabilities is still going strong. They continue to offer pre-vocational training to people with both physical and intellectual disabilities. In addition to these services, Capabilities also runs several businesses including a print shop, an upholstery shop, and a machine shop located at 1149 Sullivan Street, plus Elmira Tea and Coffee House cafe on Water Street, and a custodial service. The workers are all paid at or above minimum wage.
|ETCH menu, 2020|