What Is Sheltered Employment For the Disabled?

Sheltered work is work performed in a protected work environment or sheltered workshops, also referred to as work centers, by people with disabilities. The type of work that is performed is often very basic, is performed under special supervision, and legally pays below minimum wage. The goal of sheltered work is to provide training, experience, and real-world work skills to those with disabilities so that they can effectively perform open-market jobs.

What Sheltered Employment Entails

Depending on the nature of the disabilities of those working in sheltered workshops, sheltered work generally involves basic, repetitive tasks, and may include some sort of basic physical rehab, life-skills instructions, instruction on how to maintain personal hygiene, the importance of punctuality, the art of applying to jobs, and money management. Many sheltered workshops are run by nonprofit organizations (NGOs) while some operate as part of formal government programs at the state or local level.

Earnings in Sheltered Workshops

Working in a sheltered workshop may or may not affect your ability to earn supplemental security income (SSI). To be eligible for SSI benefits, an individual’s income should be low enough that they are not considered to be doing what is referred to as substantial gainful activity, or SGA.

The Social Security Administration defines SGA as earning at least $1,220 per month from work. (This is for non-blind individuals; the rate for blind individuals is $2,440). Earnings from sheltered work programs are usually counted the same way as earnings generated in the general workplace, so higher sheltered work can lead to lower social security payments.

Payments During Different Application Stages

Sheltered workshop earnings are initially counted the same way as earnings generated in an unsheltered environment.

However, once an individual enters a sheltered work program, they often undergo an evaluation period during which their specific needs are determined. They may also receive training on different life skills, as outlined above. During this period, the individual is considered to be a student, not an employee, so sheltered workplace earnings during this time do not affect SSI payouts.

Upon leaving the sheltered workplace program, the individual becomes an active employee wherever they may work, so they will no longer be protected by sheltered workplace payment rules.

What if I Cannot Enter the Regular Workforce?

Some people may be unable to leave the sheltered workplace, because:

  • The severity of their disability prevents them from working public-workplace jobs.
  • They leave the sheltered workshop for a subsidized employment opportunity.
  • They complete their rehab but remain in the sheltered workshop program until they find a job.

Under such circumstances, it is up to the administrators of the sheltered workshop program to determine the individual’s eligibility to stay within the program based on factors such as space limitations and the progress the individual has made in terms of rehab and learning workplace skills.

Finding a Way Forward

Although sheltered workshops often receive negative press for employing the disabled at below minimum wages, the end goal of these programs is to help those in their programs to find full-time employment at more than the minimum wage, that too with the additional benefits that full-time employment in the public workspace provides.

If you need help finding a sheltered workplace program, or if a loved one with a disability is interested in learning valuable life skills in a formal work environment, speak with a legal professional. Your lawyer can also tell you more about sheltered workplace programs, how to calculate pay and benefits, and how to get back to being independent and gainfully employed.

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