COLUMBIA — Each weekday morning, Aarti Nagarkar gets up earlier than her mother because she is so eager to get to work. But the job she loves may not exist in a few days.
The autistic 22-year-old has been working at Central Missouri Subcontracting Enterprises, a sheltered workshop, since May 2007. On Tuesday, the workshop learned it was losing 3M, its biggest contractor, which means Nagarkar might not have a job.
That workshop currently employs 146 disabled workers, and Director Bruce Young said after the announcement that he might need to lay off 20 to 30 people.
After contracting with the workshop for 34 years, 3M told Young on Tuesday that it was canceling a subcontracting contract to hand assemble electrical connectors, which makes up about 70 percent of the workshop's contract work. Employees have been making headers for cables and computers for the company.
Dave Wefring, spokesman for 3M, said the economy is forcing the company to do the work in-house.
"(I'm) just a little bit sad 'cause we lost this job," worker Betty Connaway, 61, said. "I might lose my job next."
Young made the announcement Wednesday to the workers in both the morning and afternoon shifts.
"We've got several (people) that are completely nervous about what are we going to do and completely scared to death," he said afterward.
Miranda Bull, 27, a worker at the shop, said she is trying to think positively.
"Our boss said that he's going to try to get more work for us," Bull said. "Hopefully that happens."
Young said the workshop is trying to fill in the gap left by 3M by looking for more contractors but isn't having much luck. Remaining contractors include Square D, Otscon, Bi-Well Health, Battenfeld Technologies and MU.
"It's a difficult time trying to find more work. They're all suffering right now. Nobody is hiring," Young said.
The decision by 3M is part of a domino effect caused by the economic downturn. Young said workers who transition into jobs outside the workshop are often the first to get laid off. Several are now trying to return, only to find nothing available.
Funds for staff support from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education have been cut. Right now, the workshop is about a month short for staff payroll, Young said.
About 80 percent of the workshop’s revenue comes from contract work and 20 percent from state aid. In addition, workers who get laid off and live in residential programs might need to shift to day programs, which are less expensive.
Young said 85 percent of the workers are developmentally disabled, and 15 percent have a mental illness. They are paid based on their ability in relation to a non-disabled standard. Most also receive supplementary income from Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid.
Sushama Nagarkar is a single parent who is a psychologist with Columbia Public Schools. She says she has no clue what to do if her daughter, Aarti, gets laid off. More than the money, the workers value the sense of independence the work gives them, she said.
"It gives her a feeling of being independent — doing something substantial and meaningful. It's a great safe way for them to be gainfully employed," Sushama Nagarkar said. "It's just devastating if it's taken away. The problems with being laid off are magnified for people like Aarti."
3M is also grappling with a decision that comes from economic necessity but is a serious blow to a sheltered workshop that may be the only opportunity for disabled workers to be gainfully employed.
"This is a very difficult situation, and it was not done lightly or taken lightly," Wefring said. "We're pulling back from this contract and others. We're trying to preserve the jobs we have."
Praising the workshop for doing an outstanding job and being reliable, Wefring said that if production went back up, there was a possibility that 3M would contract again.
There are 93 sheltered workshops in Missouri, and Young said the economy is having similar effects on many of them. Several might not last the year, he said.