Bad economy could hinder Columbia's sheltered workshop

Saturday, January 10, 2009 | 5:58 p.m. CST; updated 10:40 a.m. CST, Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Andrea Wemhoff hugs Justin Wright, an employee supervisor at the Central Missouri Subcontracting Enterprises, after the two worked together on disassembling pieces of electronics on Friday. Central Missouri Subcontracting Enterprises is a manufacturing and assembly plant that provides labor-intensive work to people with disabilities.

COLUMBIA — The poor economy and a possible cut in state funding might mean fewer working hours and layoffs at Columbia’s sheltered workshop.

The nonprofit Central Missouri Subcontracting Enterprises employs more than 120 adults with disabilities and receives about 20 percent of its revenue from the state.


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Money from manufacturing contracts – which accounts for about 80 percent of the Columbia workshop’s revenue – sharply declined in December and could lead to drastic changes, said Bruce Young, executive director of Central Missouri Subcontracting Enterprises.

“We talked about it; we knew that this was going to be a bad year, but not this bad,” Young said.

Money generated by the workshop saves the state what it would cost to provide services at an alternate supervised care program. And because employees are paid for their work, the state also receives revenue from workers' payroll taxes.

Sheltered workshops are funded through the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The agency submitted a report on Dec. 22 to both the Senate 
Appropriations and House Budget committees that outlines the potential impacts of 15, 20 and 25 percent funding cuts in fiscal year 2010.

A reduction of 20 percent would force many of Missouri’s 93 sheltered workshops to close, leaving about 7,500 adults “who are unable to compete in the open job market” without work, according to the report.

A 25 percent reduction would ultimately cost the state more than it would be saving because employees would have to go elsewhere for supervised care programs, the report noted.

But Rep. Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, and chairman of the House Budget Committee, said cutting workshop funding to balance the budget would be a means of last resort. And if there are cuts, they wouldn't be as deep as those for other state agencies, Icet said. 

“I don’t anticipate less funding for sheltered workshops,” he said.

Many employees at Columbia’s workshop receive Medicaid waiver funds for residential support, and federal law mandates that they must be involved in some type of day program or work activity.

Columbia’s workshop currently receives about $15 a day per employee from the state. A comparable day program would cost taxpayers between $75 and $80 a day, Young said.

Additionally, the workshop made about $4 for every $1 it received from the state, according to its most recent financial report. The added revenue goes toward operating expenses, such as salaries, building maintenance and materials.

These figures largely insulate Missouri’s sheltered workshops from extreme cuts, but Young is still preparing to receive fewer state dollars.

For now, though, it’s the economy that has him the most worried.

“We were down probably 35 percent (in December),” Young said. “Companies are cutting back; if they’re not ordering we don’t have work.”

Bill Barr, president of the Missouri Association of Sheltered Workshop Managers, said the anemic economy has already forced him to make changes at his workshop.

In addition to his position as board president, Barr manages Lake Area Industries, a sheltered workshop in Camdenton.

“We’ve limited hours instead of laying people off,” Barr said.

Columbia’s workshop might be facing a similar scenario.

“If contract work doesn’t pick up, we could very well have to lay people off,” Young said. “There’s just no way around it.”

Changes for all employees could come in two months if contract work continues to decline. Some workers, however, have already been asked to take Fridays off because of the recent work slowdown, Young said.

But even if there aren't layoffs, reduced hours would take a heavy toll on some employees and their families.

“This is their life; the work they do — it’s everything,” Young said. “They know they’re doing real work, that they’re making a part for 3M or Square D.”

Sushama Nagarkar's 22-year-old daughter, Aarti, has autism and is employed at Central Missouri Subcontracting Enterprises.

Nagarkar, a school psychologist who works with Columbia Public Schools, said that routine is very important for Aarti.

Adults and children with autism often have a specialty, such as painting, the ability to quickly solve math equations or a keen memory.

Aarti's specialty is music.

When she first started at the workshop, she struggled to understand what the work expectations were and tended to become anxious. But over time, she became more comfortable, Nagarkar said.

The change could be heard.

"She would go to the piano and play happy music," Nagarkar said. "She started to sing and dance around the house."

The impact that reduced hours would have on her daughter's emotional well-being far outweighed the possibility of any additional financial burden, Nagarkar said.

"She gets a strong sense of self and being part of her community," Nagarkar said. "She feels like she's doing what other people are doing — getting up, going to work, having a productive day.

"If she worked fewer hours, it would be an absolute disaster," Nagarkar said.

Barbara Bulanda’s 32-year old daughter, Michelle, is also employed at the workshop.

Michelle recently had surgery and had to take two weeks off of work.

“She didn't smile very much during that time and kept asking me if she was going back to work,” Bulanda said.

Michelle’s mood changed dramatically her first day back on the job.

“The day I drove her back to work she was so excited; she sang and smiled all the way,” Bulanda said.

Young knows what’s at stake, and he’s anxious about the uncertain future of the workshop.

“I pray that (contract work) picks up,” Young said.

He’s been through hard economic times before, but nothing as bad as what he’s facing now. Young doesn’t anticipate the workshop closing, but the negative impact of less contract work would be compounded by even a slight cut in state funding.

“We went through a recession in '93. It was tough then, but this is a lot worse,” Young said. “Can we weather the storm? That’s the concern.”

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Ayn Rand January 10, 2009 | 9:16 p.m.

These people know the pride of going to work. People who live on the dole would do well to follow their lead.

Yet another example of how some people refuse to let disabilities disable them.

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