Turning workers’ challenges into workplace assets

New state law aims to provide better jobs and pay for Colorado workers with disabilities.


Mitch Routon has an intellectual disability, but, he says over the phone, he considers himself fortunate. Unlike many people with an intellectual or developmental disability (IDD) he has a job he enjoys and an income that makes him happy. Routon works at arc Thrift in Colorado Springs where he takes care of the jewelry and collectible cases, helping customers and “whatever else they need me to do.” He enjoys “talking to all the different people,” he says.

He’s had this job for about two years but he formerly worked at a supermarket where he was paid less than minimum wage. “It was tough,” he says. “I could never get a leg up or make the same amount as everyone else.” His former employer was able to pay Routon subminimum wages under federal and state laws because he is disabled. But Colorado state legislators abolished that practice as of July 1, joining seven other states that have enacted similar laws.

According to Colorado’s Inclusive Housing Coalition, nearly 86,000 Coloradans have an intellectual or developmental disability, and about 70 percent are unemployed. The U.S. Census reported in 2019, before COVID, a 3.7 percent unemployment rate for non-disabled workers.

Under a federal law enacted in 1938 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression, employers can apply for an exemption from paying minimum wage under section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. It’s interesting to note that Roosevelt was disabled—paralyzed from the waist down. The law’s original intent was to incentivize employers to hire people with disabilities recognizing that they are capable of contributing to the workplace and the economy.

Photo courtesy of Arc Thrift Store Ambassadors.

The law has been called anachronistic and antiquated by disability advocates who have long been calling for its abolishment.

On the tail of the Great Depression, “it might have been a good plan, particularly in an era when [people with disabilities] weren’t appreciated at all,” says Lloyd Lewis, chief executive officer of arc Thrift, which employs 1,600 people in 31 stores, 350 of whom have IDD. “But the world has changed significantly since then.” Many people with IDD participate in their communities, are employed and contribute to society, he says.

Federal legislators are also seeking to change the law with the introduction of the Transformation to Competitive Integrated Employment Act, introduced by U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Virginia) in April and currently cosponsored by 20 Democrats and three Republican members of Congress. But Colorado legislators wanted to get ahead of the federal law.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger (D), who introduced the Colorado law, says she and other disability advocates were concerned that once the federal law is enacted—and she’s confident it will be—it will “flip a switch,” on funding to what are known as sheltered workshops and the support services often associated with them. Employees and their family members wouldn’t understand what happened, Zenzinger says, and the programs would just disappear overnight.

Sheltered workshops cater to some of the most severely disabled among people with IDD—those historically seen as incapable of working within the traditional workforce. These workshops contract for jobs that are typically manual, repetitive tasks that, under the 14(c) certificate, are stipulated to serve as training for better-paying community-based jobs. But there is no oversight and workers are often paid for each completed piece resulting in workers making significantly less than minimum wage—less than a dollar an hour in many cases. The proposed federal law will likely shut down these workshops overnight, leaving many workers without the support services they are accustomed to, such as job coaches and attendants assigned to help them at jobs sites with personal care.

Photo courtesy of Blue Star Recycling.

Colorado’s law provides for a phasing-out period to allow employers to adjust, although many have already abandoned 14(c). According to U.S. Department of Labor records, only seven organizations in Colorado still hold one of these certificates, affecting fewer than 300 people. The new law will go into full effect in July 2025. Though employers do not seem fazed by the new law, Zenzinger says, family members of disabled adults are.

“Unless there was a transition plan, in some cases, that might put [workers] in jeopardy,” says Lewis from arc, who testified in support of the legislation. “We felt that was important just to make sure that nobody was left in a kind of vacuum because people with IDD, they love to work like everybody else.”

When Lafayette-based disability agency Imagine! began its employment services in 1984, the decision to send workers to community-based jobs rather than open a sheltered workshop was “unimaginable” at the time, says Kim Cortes, director of community and employment services. Imagine! places hundreds of Boulder County-area people with IDD in meaningful jobs. Many of the clients have complex needs and behavioral challenges, so putting them in traditional work settings “allowed them to experience community for the very first time,” Cortes says. 

Although some of Imagine!’s clients are currently working under a 14(c) certificate under contracts the agency needs to uphold, its 14(c) certificate expires next year and the organization has been phasing it out since February, Cortes says. In some cases, Imagine! is making up the difference to meet the minimum wage requirement. Still, she doesn’t believe an increase in employees’ wages will deter companies from hiring Imagine!’s clients.

Even so, Cortes had several fraught conversations with parents who, after being apprised of the new law, were worried about what it meant for their children. “They’d always believed and been told their children can’t work or can only work in a [sheltered workshop] or they think employers won’t hire them,” Cortes says. “Parents can’t believe that their family member can be employed. It’s a total culture shift for them too.”

Broomfield disability advocate Robin Bolduc’s adult daughter has Down syndrome. The fear, she says, is that sheltered workshops will close because they won’t be able afford to keep running.

“[Parents] are upset that their adult children will have no place to go during the day,” she says. “Whenever there’s a change, you’re confronting parents with their worldview of what they’ve been told for 30 years. And in some realms, you’re telling the parents they made the wrong decision” by sending their children to sheltered workshops.

Bolduc’s daughter doesn’t need a job coach and has worked in the community alongside non-disabled people in the past. Known as integrated employment, the arrangement is well supported by many disability advocates.

But there are pitfalls to this inclusivity.

Bolduc’s daughter, who now works at arc Thrift in Louisville, has been fired from integrated jobs in the past because hiring managers didn’t understand her. In one case, she’d eaten another employee’s lunch—she “doesn’t have a strong understanding of ownership,” Bolduc says. The other employees, including the one whose lunch she’d consumed, made light of it. But the manager—not the one who had hired her, it should be noted—fired her on the spot saying there was zero tolerance for theft. Her daughter “was devastated,” Bolduc says.

“The issue is not integration,” Lewis adds. “The issue is, are management practices sufficient to guarantee successful outcomes? There’s bad management in sheltered workshops and in integrated environments.”

So, it’s no wonder that parents are concerned and why some, like Bolduc’s daughter, are content working in environments where many workers have IDD and those who don’t are trained to understand and work effectively with them. They aren’t sheltered workshops and employees are paid on the same pay scale regardless of disability status. 

Employers, legislators, and the general public are only beginning to recognize the assets people with IDD can bring to the workplace. Generalizations aside, many people with IDD enjoy and thrive doing the manual repetitive tasks often conducted in sheltered workshops. They also tend to be hardworking and reliable, says Bill Morris, who founded Blue Star Recyclers in 2009 after seeing four autistic men in a day program doing what he called “busy work.” 

Photo courtesy of Blue Star Recycling.

What Morris noticed about these men is that they were focused and seemingly happy in the work. Being from the business world, Morris, whose brother had worked in a sheltered workshop, saw an opportunity.

“They probably shouldn’t have been there because all of them were certainly able to work, they all wanted to work,” he says. “They were put in this room where they were just taking things apart. They weren’t being paid or trained or supervised particularly. The idea was to just get them out of there and get them working and into meaningful employment.” 

Blue Star Recyclers collects worn-out electronics at its five job sites—four in Colorado, including one in Boulder at Eco-Cycle and one in Illinois—where electronics are disassembled and recyclable materials are then sold for repurposing. The company employs 55 people, 44 of whom have a disability and who start at minimum wage at all their operations. The company has never held a 14(c) certificate, Morris says, noting he wasn’t aware of it when he founded the company that switched from a for-profit organization to a nonprofit after a few years. According to Blue Star’s 2020 annual report, the company brought in $2.4 million in earned income. Blue Star’s employees have, on average, been with the company more than six years. The industry average is significantly less, Morris notes, and he’s been traveling around the world to train other recyclers to replicate his model. 

Lewis, of arc Thrift, agrees with Morris’ assessment. “People with IDD love to help, love to work in teams, are very positive, they love to contribute and they really inspire their fellow employees,” he says. 

Bob Lawhead, policy advisor for Colorado Developmental Disabilities Council, appreciates what arc Thrift and Blue Star Recyclers provide, but he’d like to see more people with IDD in customized integrated jobs alongside non-disabled workers. 

In the 1980s, Lawhead says, about 75 percent of the employees of a sheltered workshop where he worked wanted to be there. But people got the experience of working outside it, so when it closed in 1996, 99 percent of the clients chose to work in community settings. Providing people’s choice yields better results, he says. Sheltered workshops are contracted to do specific jobs with the same group of employees, “But not everyone in the workshop is capable or interested in the work, so productivity is low,” he says. Getting people jobs that interest them and matches their skillset is a win for the employee and the employer.

One of the highest hurdles for integrated employment is a scarcity of job coaches and direct care attendants, advocates say. Most are not paid much more than the person they are helping—little more than minimum wage. Without these supplementary employees, workers with IDD may not be able to fully integrate. In 2019, before the effects of COVID-19 set in, there was a 45 percent turnover rate for job coaches, Lawhead says. Now it’s nearly impossible to recruit people.

“That’s why parents’ concerns [about the law] are well-founded,” he adds.

Lawhead serves on an advisory board with the Colorado Office of Employment First and says the office expects to release a report this month of findings and recommendations regarding these issues.

The new law also changes how Medicaid funding is allocated for people with disabilities. Under Colorado’s former Medicaid rules, families determine how to use a capped amount of funding for supported living services including job coaching. This left many parents of a disabled child having to choose between job coaching and medical care or other supplemental living services (SLS), such as personal care or assistive technologies. For many, job coaching wasn’t feasible under this scheme given their child’s needs. The new law removes job coaching from the SLS cap and provides job coaching dependent on need, opening the doors for more people with IDD to get community-based jobs.

This is an exciting development for disability advocates. Some even see it as the dawn of inclusive workplaces with people of all abilities.

Fred Hobbs has been Imagine!’s director of public relations for 16 years and says the organization serves as an employment facilitator for some of the most challenged workers.

“I don’t want to lose my job,” he says with a smile. “But I dream of a day when these sorts of services aren’t needed anymore.”

And though Routon is thrilled about the new law, he says there’s more that needs to be done. “Employers can’t keep treating their employees like less than what they’re worth,” he says. “I would like to see all 50 states end sub-minimum wage. We have some serious work to do.”

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