Gov. Jerry Brown signs bill extending protection of disabled employees

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Amanda Hart/File

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Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law Tuesday extending discrimination and harassment protection laws to cover disabled employees in sheltered workshops and rehabilitation facilities.

Co-authored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, and Senator Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, AB 488 eliminated an exemption for sheltered workshops and rehabilitation facilities, which are employment spaces specifically created for disabled people to work in. Workers at these facilities previously did not have basic legal protections from discrimination based on race, age, religion and gender.

“In the past, sheltered workshops and rehabilitation centers have been considered by some to be temporary training environments,” Gonzalez said in a press release. “But real-world experience has demonstrated that these are employees who often stay in their positions for many years.”

Tony Anderson, executive director of the Arc of California — a nonprofit advocacy organization for people with developmental disabilities — said initially the organization had some issues with the bill. The organization later worked with the bill’s co-authors to ensure that the bill didn’t affect 14(c) certificates, which allow sheltered workshops to pay disabled employees less than minimum wage based on an employee’s productivity.

“The first thing we have to realize is that people with developmental disabilities can be fully productive in the workforce (and) we need to have businesses open their doors and give them a chance,” Anderson said.

The Alameda County branch of Arc is set to implement a new program called LEAP, which aims to help people with developmental disabilities learn skills necessary to transition out of sheltered workshops in Alameda County into the community workforce, according to Director of Public Information Richard Fitzmaurice.

“People with developmental disabilities can make for wonderful part-time workers, interns, volunteers,” Fitzmaurice said. “(Creating sheltered workshops) was the right choice in the 1930s, but over time, we want to transition them out.”

Fitzmaurice said he doesn’t know of any specific cases of harassment against disabled people at Alameda County sheltered workshops, but said that the new law is good because it is preventative, leveling the playing field by protecting workers under law.

But while the law marks another step towards more inclusive work environments, some experts say sheltered workshops should pay their employees more than a training wage.

Cottage industries — industries that allow people to work from their homes — have used these fixed minimum-wage certificates for decades to the detriment of employees, according to Bryon MacDonald, program director of the employment and disability benefits initiative at the Berkeley-based World Institute on Disability, or WID.

Rather, MacDonald said, more industries should support employers who are willing to make workplaces universally accessible. Part of this effort, he said, includes asking corporations to assess the way employees with disabilities are hired, managed and treated.

“We think the problem is at the hiring process, but disability management is an ongoing process,” MacDonald said.

Ultimately, the new anti-discrimination law is important because it gives people who are developmentally disabled a voice, said Alex Ghenis, a UC Berkeley alumnus and a policy and research specialist at WID.

“Laws like this are incredibly important,” Ghenis said. “(To fight) institutionalized legal oppression … we have to chip away at that piece by piece and sometimes that’s tackling things like this.”

Contact Ashley Wong at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @wongalum.