Mid-Missouri workshop celebrates 40 years of employing adults with disabilities

Wednesday, December 2, 2009 | 6:42 p.m. CST; updated 12:50 p.m. CST, Thursday, December 3, 2009
Ricky Orndorff and Tammy Harvey share a laugh as they assemble small parts to be used in electronic equipment at the Central Missouri Subcontracting Enterprises workshop on Tuesday. The CMSE, a sheltered workshop that employs people with mental disabilities, has been suffering from recent state funding and contracting cuts and consequently has had to cut the afternoon shift for employees.

COLUMBIA — Amanda Pirtle’s hands race as she stitches together years of memories for the 40-year anniversary of the Central Missouri Subcontracting Enterprises.

A supervisor’s assistant at the sheltered workshop, Pirtle is as much a testament to what the nonprofit organization accomplishes as the quilt she sewed. She has a learning disability and started off at the workshop doing simple tasks such as assembling packaging. She gradually gained more responsibilities, and now she assists supervisors in supporting other workers. She has been at the shelter for a little more than two years now and hates sitting at home.

If you go

What: Central Missouri Subcontracting Enterprises 40-year anniversary celebration

When: 1 p.m. with tours, followed by recognition of workers and a reception at 2 p.m.

Where: 4040 S. Bearfield Road

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“I like helping others, especially those with worse disabilities than I have,” Pirtle said.

The workshop at 4040 S. Bearfield Road has provided work to people with developmental disabilities and mental illnesses since 1979. A Friday anniversary celebration will allow the shelter to showcase stories such as Pirtle’s.

As one of the oldest workshops in Missouri, it certainly has reason to celebrate. But the last year's recession has been tough, with the loss of a contract and cuts in state funding.

In April, 3M, a major contractor, dropped six of its seven production lines from the workshop. Director Bruce Young forecasted possibly laying off 20 to 30 people.

Since then, the shelter has cut its afternoon shift and laid off four full-time employees who assisted the workers. No employees with disabilities have been laid off.

“It makes it challenging whenever you lose four good employees like that,” Young said.

Workers such as Pirtle often will transition into outside jobs, but the results can be mixed. With the downturn in the economy, people with disabilities are often the first laid off, employee manager Fran Schneider said. And others leave competitive employment by choice.

“They have not been accepted by their peers in competitive employment or for whatever other reasons, maybe they needed more support,” Schneider said, “And then they will come back by choice.”

The shelter received a bit of good news last month when 3M decided to bring three production lines back to the workshop and it gained other new contracts. But even with that boost, Young said the workshop operates at less than half the capacity of where it was a year ago.

"I’ve beat on about every door in Columbia, and businesses are just telling us 'check back in the first quarter,'" Young said, “Columbia, with the insurance companies and the university, usually isn’t affected, but it’s affecting everybody.”

And it could get worse. About 20 percent of the workshop’s funding comes from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which has seen its budget cut by $19.57 million in the last year.

Sheltered workshops get paid based on employee attendance, and state funding will be about three weeks short, said Fulvio Franzi, Missouri director of extended employment sheltered workshops. Franzi said he doesn't know what the impact of the cuts will be.*

The waiting list has grown as well — Franzi said he has 700 people seeking employment at Missouri workshops.

Rebecca Gingrich has worked there for 20 years and used to live in  the housing surrounding the shelter. The majority of the housing is closed, but Gingrich still counts on the shelter for money, friends and support.

“It will be nice for us to be able to show people what we do here,” Gingrich said.

The benefits of the workshop go beyond the lives of the workers. People who get Medicaid and are not employed must participate in a day program. At a minimum, the cost to taxpayers is double that of workshops, Franzi said.

BeWell Health, a Kansas City company that produces a nasal spray, uses the workshop to assemble its product. President Hana Solomon wasn’t sure how many workers she was going to need when she started the company and said the shelter allows her the flexibility she needs.

“I love being able to say my product is completely assembled by disabled adults,” Solomon said.

Young said the workshop is looking at starting its own business to try and counter the cuts in contracts and state funding. One possibility is a greenhouse modeled after a nonprofit organization for people with developmental disabilities in Oregon.

Statewide in the fiscal year 2009, workshops lost 15 percent to 17 percent of their contract income overall, Franzi said.

“They pretty well follow the general economic trends in Missouri, but as subcontractors, they may have been hit a little harder, “ Franzi said.

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