Occupational Services wants to preserve 14(c) organizations for people with disabilities
Jack Shoemaker of Greencastle loves to work. It's like pulling teeth for his parents, Carolyn and Barry Shoemaker, to convince him to go on vacation.
Michelle Lane is breathing a temporary sigh of relief that with the Build Back Better Act stalled, employment through Occupational Services Inc. will continue — at least for now — for Jack and dozens of other local residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Based in Chambersburg, the non-profit OSI was founded in 1957 and is marking its 65th year helping "individuals with disabilities or other barriers to employment to lead more productive and meaningful lives by maximizing their abilities to achieve their highest potential through vocational programs and employment services," according to its website.
Hard work recognized: Instant Brands rewards employees for attendance, Greencastle forklift driver gets Jeep SUV
Kids helping kids: Guiding Hands Preschool Trike-A-Thon for St. Jude held at Otterbein Church in Greencastle
Lane, OSI's executive director, is part of the nationwide Coalition for the Preservation of 14C, which is amping up efforts to protect the future of commensurate wage work center programs. At sites like OSI, some employees are paid a "piece rate" rather than an hourly wage.
Fighting for 14(c) organizations
A small section of the 2,000-plus page Bill Back Better Act is aimed at moving away from organizations certified by section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act under which people with disabilities may earn less than minimum wage.
The most recent challenge has been tied to efforts to raise the minimum wage, but this was not the first time 14(c)s have been in the bull's eye and some bad seeds can taint the whole bunch, according to Lane.
"Those kind of stories hit the media," she said, citing one boarding home where the residents were basically doing forced labor.
Some opponents of the current structure say 14(c) allows organizations to unfairly pay disabled individuals below minimum wage and does not train them to work in a competitive job market.
The Coalition for the Preservation of 14C is working to educate lawmakers on why their organizations are important and that they do not take advantage of people with disabilities, who are receiving pay in line with what they do on the job.
"We really think our congresspeople don't understand," Lane said.
Workplaces like OSI may be the only opportunities for meaningful employment for some 100,000 individuals with disabilities across the country "who rely on commensurate wage work centers for their employment with extensive accommodations and supports," according to a position paper the coalition distributed to lawmakers in January.
The paper highlights the value of 14(c) organizations for people with disabilities and their communities, outlines strict federal and state guidelines they must meet and says 14(c) should not be tied to efforts to raise the minimum wage. It is not financially feasible for some disabled workers to be paid minimum wage because that is higher than their level of productivity and they have additional needs, such as job coaching, according to the coalition.
"These providers offer a safe environment, with professional staffing, to allow individuals to thrive in an employment setting, work with their peers and others, and receive a paycheck," the paper says. "Ultimately, Congress should take action to ensure that the most vulnerable members of the workforce, including those with significant intellectual and developmental disabilities, are not abandoned by an ill-advised wholesale elimination of the 14(c) program."
On the job with Jack Shoemaker
On a recent work day, Jack sported an Orioles orange T-shirt identifying him as "The Boss." He's also a diehard Baltimore Ravens fan, who knows everybody by the football team they root for.
Close to home, the Shoemakers are big Greencastle-Antrim sports fans, attending almost all football and basketball games in-person or online.
And just about everybody in Greencastle knows the 47-year-old, whether he's mowing grass, blowing snow, riding his bike around town or enjoying an occasional beer at the VFW.
"Jack is accepted in the community because we're part of the community," his mother said.
The Shoemakers and their only child are members of the Rescue Hose Co. and Grace United Church of Christ.
He rode with a friend in the Rescue Hose ambulance in the Old Home Week parade and Carolyn recalls the driver saying, "I thought I knew a lot of people, but everyone knows Jack."
OSI regularly spotlights clients and employees on its Facebook page, and Jack's post reached 10,000 people, said Jason Green, OSI's marketing and media manager, who grew up in Greencastle not far from the Shoemakers' home.
"We're known as Jack's parents," Barry said, noting his son was not social when he got out of high school, but that's changed since he started working at OSI.
If a label must be put on Jack, his mother said it would be autistic. He's good with his hands, has interests ranging from puzzles to NASCAR and has learned many skills, but verbally it is a different story. Jack is a man of few words.
He graduated in 1994 from Greencastle-Antrim High School, where he was in the what was then called "educable mentally retarded class," the only option for special needs students at the time.
The kids in his class went to OSI for vocational evaluations and he started working there in December 1994.
His parents had to talking him into going to work at OSI all those years ago, and his mother initially had to stay with him for an hour or two.
"It was a big step, but it's the best thing that ever happened," Carolyn said.
"Now we have to talk him into not coming. He hates days off," his father added, explaining Jack worries about who will do the work when he's not there.
Jack is proud to go home and show his parents his paycheck. He spends some of his money for riding at the Star Equestrian Center and on Orioles and Ravens swag. If he's had a good week, he'll offer to help pay when he goes out to eat with his parents on Friday night.
Jack is paid by the piece and often makes more than minimum wage. In the production department, he moves around a table covered with components of junction boxes for JLG equipment, which he assembles from their start as empty shells to fully wired finished products.
"When he sees JLG equipment out in the field, he says, 'I did that,'" Barry said.
"I feel like we've been blessed to find a place like this to be productive," Carolyn said.
Employment at OSI
The same day Jack was working on the junction boxes, others at OSI were busy in the print shop, processing water bills for Guilford Township. In another part of the facility on Redwood Street in Chambersburg, workers were packaging products for local manufacturers.
OSI staffers learn how to do the various jobs and then teach and coach the clients.
There are a variety of adaptive, individualized "jigs" to help those who may not be able to read or have dexterity issues.
Larry French of Chambersburg matched nuts, bolts and washers to illustrations on a sheet of paper to know how many of each to put in a plastic bag. At another station, a wooden block was used to hold a cans in place while labels were placed on them.
OSI tries to teach clients to do as many jobs as they can because, Lane said, "the bigger the repertoire, the bigger the paycheck."
Jack's also worked in the wood products area, and he's pictured running a saw in a collage of people doing various jobs at OSI displayed in the office hallway.
Companies that use OSI's services represent a who's who of local business and industry. TB Wood's is one example and a project may include building boxes, putting the product and instructions in the boxes and labeling and sealing them shut.
Patient information folders are filled for Meritus Health, paint chip rings and shingle samples are assembled for construction products businesses and, seasonally, desk calendars for Staples are put in boxes of various sizes so workers can easily grab them at the warehouse.
Clients use more industrial gross motor skills at a second OSI facility on Industrial Drive, also in Chambersburg, where the work may include washing pallets and bins or shredding secure documents.
The work is always changing and, according to Department of Labor guidelines for 14(c) certification, each job must be studied to determine the "piece rate," according to Lane.
There is a complicated formula, which includes timing three non-disabled workers to determine the average time it takes to complete one piece to get a base time, factoring in worker fatigue then calculating how many pieces can be produced in one hour to establish the pay per piece.
"We complete this process for every job our clients do, so there are different piece rates for each job," Lane said.
OSI is audited periodically, must reapply for certification every two years and submit a great deal of paperwork to the Department of Labor, including an annual survey of what local for-profit companies pay for similar tasks to determine the prevailing wage.
"It’s something we take very seriously in order not only to comply, but to pay clients fairly," according to Lane.
A few of the workers at the two OSI sites have hourly jobs and receive Pennsylvania's minimum wage of $7.25/hour, as do about 40 who go out into the community to work at places like Staples, the Butcher Shoppe and area churches.
OSI's overall workforce is 70 to 80, and the aim is to provide employment choices that make each person comfortable.
"The disability community should not be treated with a monolithic, one-size, fits-all approach," says coalition information provided to lawmakers.
"Eliminating 14(c) eliminates choice for a lot of people," Lane said. "We want to see choice preserved."
Jack's made it clear he doesn't want to work out in the community. His choice is "his own little space ... his comfort zone," according to his mother, adding, "They feel comfortable here, it's their safety zone. Doesn't everyone want to feel safe?"
While there are people in the disabilities community who believe everyone deserves minimum wage, "some folks we have couldn't maintain a job without someone standing next to them to talk them through it," Lane said.
Without the supportive employment of OSI, many of its clients would not be working at all and would be sitting at home or in a day facility doing "fun activities" like arts and crafts.
"The people here want to work," Lane said.
"If you can't be employed by yourself in the real world, you're going to sit at home," Carolyn said. She and Jack got a taste of that when COVID hit and they were home every day.
"We both got lazy, and he wasn't happy because he wasn't coming to work," Carolyn said.
Shawn Hardy is a reporter with Gannett's Franklin County newspapers in south-central Pennsylvania — the Echo Pilot in Greencastle, The Record Herald in Waynesboro and the Public Opinion in Chambersburg. She has more than 35 years of journalism experience. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org