Thousands of Missourians with lifelong disabilities work for just a few cents an hour. Somebody has to do it.

The Factory Life 

Thousands of Missourians with lifelong disabilities work for just a few cents an hour. Somebody has to do it.

On weekday mornings at a quarter after 8, a white handicapped-accessible van trundles down Vine Street, an industrial row in Harrisonville. It rolls past the RB Industries saw-blade manufacturing plant and ChemSyn Laboratories, where technicians mix toxic anticancer drugs. The van pulls to a stop in front of a squat ocher building and a blue plastic sign: Casco Area Workshop Inc. About fifteen workers -- all of them mentally retarded -- climb out of the van and shuffle into the building.

Parents pull up in front of the workshop to drop off their disabled sons and daughters before speeding away to their busy lives. During the next few minutes, more than 150 workers file into the break room to peel off their bulky coats. In the room where they congregate, yelling and hugging and slapping hands, the sour odor of a school cafeteria -- a mix of bleach, hot dogs and soggy carpet -- permeates the air.

Among the workers is Kenneth Skelton.

He begins his day by walking down a long hallway to a large cement-floored space with high ceilings, long assembly tables and a few machines. There he does the same simple task for six hours at a time. He calls it the Spot Shot job.

"You take a band," he says loudly, "and put it on the cans."

Every ten seconds or so, he pulls one paper band out of a box and slips it over two blue-and-orange spray cans of Spot Shot carpet-stain remover. Another worker then passes the pair of cans through a shrink-wrap machine and places them in a shallow cardboard box, to be made into displays for Wal-Mart. Kenneth Skelton has been working on the Spot Shot job for "a long time." He's not sure how long.

Commotion prevails as soon as Peggy Kutchback, who runs the place, walks through. People stop working and stare or bellow out greetings. Indomitably cheery for someone just back from a Hawaiian vacation, Kutchback gives out hugs and affectionate thumps on the back to those who mob her.

The chaos doesn't bother her. Cocking her head at the sound of loud moans coming from down the hall, Kutchback says, "Oh, that's just Johnny. He's getting upset again." Then a woman's wailing sends Kutchback hustling over to Amy, whose face is buried in her hands. Kutchback picks up the phone and calls a social worker to come calm the woman down. Amy is schizophrenic and hallucinates a lot. She'll scream and cry, making her mascara run, but no one knows what she sees. Other workers stop and look at her and fidget awkwardly until help arrives.

Casco Area Workshop is one of 91 "sheltered workshops" in Missouri, which employ more than 8,000 people who live with what doctors call "developmental disabilities." Most of the workers have mild to severe mental retardation. Some, like Amy, also have a mental illness. Other workers have autism, cerebral palsy or epilepsy and other health problems exacerbated by their physical disabilities.

By Missouri law, the workshops can pay these employees less than minimum wage but must pay them at least 52 cents an hour. Workers get paid for each piece they finish, and individual workshop directors set the per-piece rate based on the same type of time and motion studies used by such large businesses as Ford Motor Company. Each year in May, Kutchback surveys wages at local companies where workers do similar tasks. By dividing a nondisabled worker's salary by the number of units he or she can complete in an hour, Kutchback and other workshop operators determine the per-piece rate for their disabled employees. A simple assembler in Cass County makes about $6.45 an hour, but many of the workers at Casco earn $1 an hour.

Kenneth Skelton is 45 years old and makes between $50 and $60 on each biweekly paycheck. It will take two weeks of banal and repetitive work to buy that nice Thermos he's been wanting, or three CDs, or a few dinners out.

Six years ago, as Skelton neared his 40th birthday, his world barely extended past the inside of his parents' house on the edge of Peculiar. And his parents were getting old.

Ever since the 1950s, when the Skeltons discovered that their infant son had cerebral palsy and when disabilities often were seen as shameful, Asa and Geraldine Skelton had tenderly and protectively taken care of Kenneth's every need. As Kenneth got older, his muscles atrophied so much that it simply was easier for him to use a wheelchair to get around. His parents would go into the bathroom with him, hoist him onto the toilet, then clean him up.

When Kenneth was a teenager, sheltered workshops were just getting started -- they were usually organized by parents. His mother used to take him to a borrowed building in Kansas City where, with other disabled children, Kenneth would cut material, weigh seeds or perform whatever other tasks could be invented to keep them busy. Then his parents moved to the house on five acres in Peculiar, where they kept a few dairy cows. Asa Skelton became involved with the board of the Casco Area Workshop, but Kenneth did not work there. As Kenneth got older, he became weaker and more homebound.

When Asa and Geraldine got on into their late 70s, their health began to deteriorate. Asa suffered a stroke and Geraldine developed lupus, and then she had a stroke too. They started to talk about the worry that had haunted them for years: What would happen to Kenneth when they died?

The couple went to talk to Peggy Kutchback, who had worked in quality control at AT&T as well as in the federal prison system and had found her passion in helping the disabled. The Skeltons didn't think Kenneth was capable of doing a job in Kutchback's workshop, but they hoped she could give them some advice on how to help him become more independent.

Kutchback started out by persuading Asa and Geraldine to let Kenneth come to the day program at the workshop, where therapists did stretching and other physical therapy with the more severely disabled attendees who were not ready -- or would never be ready -- to work. Twice a week, a music therapist came in to play the piano for the people in the program, and social workers taught the participants how to make snacks, such as microwave popcorn. Someone at the workshop had taken in a stray cat, and the people in the day program used it to learn about touch.

Kutchback thought Kenneth's dependence on the wheelchair was mostly a habit and that with some physical exercise, he could leave the aid behind. She started sending him to a gym in Harrisonville, where a trainer found that he was good at boxing. After three years in the day program, Kenneth moved into the workshop and started doing simple assembly. The workshop had a contract with Hartland Industries for making the Spot Shot displays. Workers also stuffed bags with a wispy white fiber used for making cement, headed for a distributor based in Wichita. And they packaged dried corn cobs and seeds for bird feed for Seba Brothers.

Now, three years after starting at the sheltered workshop, Kenneth Skelton strides into the shop, plops down on a chair, leans back and crosses his legs. He fidgets with the chunky wooden beads that dangle from his twine necklace. When he talks about work, he says he likes it. But a broad smile stretches across his face when he talks about buying a Thermos or about his girlfriend.

Kenneth's life revolves around the workshop. All of his friends are there, and that's where he met his girlfriend. Casco is planning a spaghetti dinner at the Harrisonville Armory, where there will be a DJ -- the workers love to dance to rock music. In the summer, the staff will take groups of workers to Royals games or to the zoo, and in October they'll visit a nearby pumpkin patch. Since Kutchback has been at Casco, she's seen five weddings between workers.

When Kenneth's mother died of pneumonia two years ago, she and Asa had just written a letter to Kutchback, telling her they no longer worried about who would care Kenneth when they died. He had moved out of their house and into a group home, and Medicaid took care of his doctor bills. Kenneth probably doesn't know that his mother ever feared for his future.

Asa Skelton is proud of the small things his son does, things that are nothing at all to most people. Kenneth is doing productive work, not just busy work. He has his own bank account. He takes a vacation each year to Branson, to see musicals and comedies -- "good, clean shows," Asa says -- with other disabled people and chaperones.

Now, when Kenneth goes to visit his father each Friday evening, the two men watch I Love Lucy videos, and Kenneth sleeps in his mother's old twin bed. They fix hot dogs and sit together in the living room. There's not much to do, Asa says.

Before 1969, when Missouri legislators allowed counties to set up tax levies for sheltered workshops and group homes, people with developmental disabilities did one of two things with their lives. They either sat at home and whiled away their days doing nothing or they were packed up and sent away to large, dreary institutions that often sat in rural areas, hidden away from the rest of society. A veil of shame covered the people known as "the handicapped."

But Frank Ackerman, whose son Rowland is in his 50s and has Down's syndrome, set out to change that. A pioneer of the sheltered workshop legislation in Missouri, Ackerman wrote after the law passed that people who otherwise would have no choice but to be on welfare rolls or in state institutions were now "happy, self-respecting, wage-earning, tax-paying citizens."

Sheltered workshops were a progressive step at the time. At least developmentally disabled people had the option of getting onto a bus and making the trip to an anonymous building and earning a paycheck, however small.

Randy Hylton, whose Vocational Services Inc. operates two sheltered workshops in Liberty and one in North Kansas City, admits that some critics see the places as forced-labor sweatshops, although he doesn't agree with that characterization. Most bureaucrats -- who control the money that keeps sheltered workshops in business -- are a little more diplomatic.

Janice Tilman is the paid executive director of the Platte County Board of Services for the Developmentally Disabled, which is charged with doling out the revenues used for employment and living programs for developmentally disabled citizens. She hints that she'd rather see these people fully employed in the community. In recent decades, as developmentally disabled children have increasingly been integrated into classrooms with nondisabled students, advocates say such "mainstreaming" is essential for a disabled person's growth and that segregating disabled people from society is wrong.

"People who are coming into the developmental disability system now have been raised on mainstreaming, so they need different services," says Tilman. The implication is that sheltered workshops are not so different from the institutions of the old days.

Tilman is a member of the Missouri Association of County Developmental Disabilities Services, comprising 47 county boards. The boards that oversee the workshops take in anywhere from $80,000 (in small, rural Bates County) to more than $5 million (in Jackson County) a year. The group is pushing legislation that would give county boards the authority to spend the money, which now goes to sheltered workshops and residential programs, on any program for the developmentally disabled. That would allow county boards to provide money to send people to the Special Olympics or for travel expenses for parents who want to attend a conference to learn more about their children's disabilities.

Kutchback, however, is the executive director of Cass and Bates counties' services boards and wants to make sure people like Kenneth Skelton continue to be able to work in a sheltered workshop. Unlike most executive directors, she's a volunteer. Kutchback fell into the position when she noticed that the Cass County Board of Services was a bit disorganized, and she offered to set agendas and plan meetings. She spends a few hours a week on her duties for the boards and doesn't want to be paid -- that would mean less money would go to the workshops. And she bristles when she sees figures like those on a 1999 audit of the Platte County Board of Services, showing that $1.6 million -- more than half of that board's $2.9 million budget -- went to pay the salaries of the people who administered the funds (including Tilman's $58,500 salary), along with those of their managers and some staff, instead of going to the workshops.

"We've got [executive directors] who are making a lot of money in county boards, and they've got their own programs," Kutchback says. Those executive directors need no special qualifications. They can be former factory supervisors, like Hylton, or have a background in social services or business. Each workshop's volunteer board of directors decides who to hire to manage the facility. And Kutchback believes that when given the choice between using their limited resources for their own programs or for sheltered workshops, county boards will inevitably fund their own programs. "They're wanting it broadened to where they don't have any accountability," she says, "and to me that's like having the fox guard the chicken coop."

The legislative dispute was touched off by a 1996 lawsuit. In January of that year, the Clay County board denied funding for an expansion of Vocational Services Inc.'s program, called Work and Personal Services, in which developmentally disabled people with behavioral or personal problems could work abbreviated hours in VSI's sheltered workshop while getting extra help in personal development. People in the program did volunteer work, chatting and playing games with elderly residents in nursing homes or feeding the animals in veterinarians' offices. When VSI executive director Hylton (who is also president of the Missouri Association of Sheltered Workshop Managers) found out funding for the expansion had been denied, he made an appeal to the county board, which again turned down his request. Then in April 1996, the operators of the Lighthouse Preschool, which served developmentally disabled children, asked for funds to buy a new building, and the county board agreed to fund it.

That's when Hylton filed suit against the Clay County Board of Services. A Clay County judge ruled in Hylton's favor, saying that the voters had approved funds only for vocational or residential services like the ones offered by Hylton's workshop. The county board appealed but lost in state court. Some county boards have refused to accept the rulings and have filed lawsuits of their own.

And this year, for the fifth time, state legislators have introduced measures to try to give county boards more say in how they spend the money that now goes to sheltered workshops. So far, those bills have either stalled in committee or failed. Hylton says that if this year's bill passes, it would set sheltered workshops back 25 years.

A shabby, 30-year-old workshop in Boone County offers a glimpse of what could happen if the legislature allows county services boards to spend money designated for the workshops however they wish.

Central Missouri Sheltered Enterprises, which sits just off Route 63 on the edge of Columbia, has suffered in the past few years. The faded brick building with its small windows looks like a clinic in a decaying neighborhood.

For years, the workers who brought food in lunch boxes or plastic containers had to wash them out in the bathroom sink because their small break room had no kitchen. The county board grudgingly parted with just $5,000 a year for the workshop (out of the $1.7 million in tax money designated for work and living programs for the disabled). Bruce Young, who manages the workshop, had a waiting list of 25 people who wanted jobs there, but he couldn't accept them because the quarters were so cramped.

After pleading with the county board to pay for an addition to the building and a new break room with a sink, Young was discouraged. With no other option, he started calling banks and small businesses in Columbia, begging them to help him patch up the workshop and add more space so he could hire the 25 jobless people.

While Young tried to scrape together donations, the county board was doing some building of its own. The board spent $2 million to buy and redecorate plush offices for its employees, complete with a satellite dish for conferences. The board moved into its new quarters in 1999, still "refusing to pay even a penny" toward the workshop's building project, Young says.

Young seethes when he thinks of board members sitting in their nice offices while mentally retarded adults sit at home waiting for the new addition to the workshop. (Young's fundraising efforts pulled in $400,000, and construction crews are finally at work.)

A sad twist is that Frank Ackerman's son, Rowland, still works in the shop that can barely get any of the money from the levy his father worked to pass in the 1960s. Young imagines that the elder Ackerman would be sick over the way funds have been withheld from the workshop.

Peggy Kutchback fears that even the inadequate funds workshops now get might be withdrawn by county boards that don't want sheltered workshops to stay in business. A few years ago, she remembers, she accidentally got a fax from Les Wagner, the executive director of the Boone County Board of Services. "If this legislation passes," it read, "we will no longer be forced to fund sheltered workshops." (Wagner did not return the Pitch's calls.)

If that happens, some of the people whose lives now center on the workshops would lose the mundane buzz of activity that helps stabilize their days, weeks and years. And Kutchback has seen how working out in the real world of fast food and retail can be equally isolating for workers with disabilities.

Not everyone is like Betty Dean, a woman who is simultaneously grandmotherly and childlike. Dean, who worked in Hylton's shop putting ribbons on stacks of stationery, decided at age 78 that she wanted a regular-paying job. Every Saturday she sweeps floors, wipes tables and replaces dirty ashtrays with clean ones for the brunch crowd at Bob Evans Restaurant in Liberty.

"I like it here!" she says. But her smile fades when she talks about her job at the Liberty workshop, where Hylton says workers average about $1.25 an hour. "I didn't like it there. I was busy all the time. I'm out of there for good!"

Dean's face brightens again as she talks about her current job, saying she got to eat a breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon and that she likes showing customers the butterfly pin she wears on her shirt.

But jobs like Dean's distress other formerly sheltered workers, and they soon find themselves back in the familiar surroundings of the workshop. Many people with mental retardation crave that familiarity -- the sameness -- and even depend on it. Kutchback knows that for a mentally disabled person working at Taco Bell, for example, a manager's moving the refried beans can be a catastrophe that sends the worker into tears.

Last year, Kenny Hain left the Casco Area Workshop and got a job. At 23, he was going to be a dishwasher at Ryan's Family Steakhouse. But Hain, who suffered brain damage as a baby, couldn't keep up with the stacks of greasy dishes that piled up in front of him. He wanted so much to make minimum wage, but the stress began building inside him. Bosses who barked orders at him and coworkers who made cruel comments turned him into a nervous wreck.

When he told Kutchback what was wrong, she told him it would be okay to come back, that no one would be disappointed in him. Since he's returned to Casco, however, Hain feels bad when he gets his paycheck and sees that he's earned less than $1 an hour. This spring, his guardian is taking him on a vacation to Disney World, and he is upset. He needs to save $500 or $600 for the trip, and he can't do it at the workshop.

"In a way I don't like being here because it doesn't pay well," Hain blurts out. "I don't like making a little bit of money. I like making a lot of money. I like sewing. I like doing the high-rate-paying jobs. I need more money so I can get some money saved up."

But some employees find their experience in the workshop so upsetting that they never go back.

Rose Purtle's daughter, Carla Youngs, lasted just two weeks at one of Hylton's VSI workshops in North Kansas City.

Carla's mother didn't like the looks of the North Kansas City workshop when she visited. It was in sharp contrast to the modern, well-maintained buildings in Jackson County, where Carla had worked in the past and her mother had been on the board. The dust that filled the air at the North Kansas City workshop aggravated Carla's asthma, and she started to cough and wheeze when she worked there.

Carla never complained, though the building was an old industrial space that had been renovated, and it had cement floors. Then Carla came home clutching a paycheck for only $9. When Purtle questioned her daughter and the workshop staff about the size of Carla's paycheck, she found out that workers were just sitting idle when the workshop didn't have enough contract work to keep everyone busy. Purtle pulled Carla out.

"She was sick all the time, and when she got her check it just made her sicker," Purtle remembers. "She was really depressed."

Carla stays home with her mother now.

Bob Nolen knows that workshop well. His daughter Sue worked there for a year before he took her out. Nolen is on the Jackson County Board of Services and is a strong believer in sheltered workshops, as long as they're run properly. Nolen has stressed to workshop managers that the employees should never be left sitting with nothing to do -- even if there are no jobs. The Jackson County Board of Services has provided educational games, workbooks and puzzles to sheltered-workshop managers and has made sure that the workshops use them. Nolen says the board would even threaten to pull funding to make sure the workers weren't being warehoused.

But Jackson County is one of the richer and more progressive counties in Missouri when it comes to the workshops. Nolen remembers the Clay County workshop where Sue labored as being atrocious.

"The physical surroundings there are terrible. [The workers] couldn't sit down. They had to stand up unless they had a doctor's excuse. They had to stand on a concrete floor when it was work that could be done sitting down. That was just one of their rules, and why they had it, nobody could ever tell me. Having to stand on concrete floors cannot be good for anybody's feet."

Virginia Tindall, who has worked as an advocate for the workers at VSI, has heard similar complaints from workers.

"Sometimes you have to deal, when they first start up, with a little bit of the immaturity, the kind of whining that their feet are sore or their back hurts because they're used to sitting down in a classroom all day long," Tindall says. "They're not used to the physical stamina that it takes to actually work here. They're not used to all that physical strain of standing and doing a lot of bending over and that kind of stuff ... a lot of repetitive work for six hours a day. That behavior normally lasts about the first couple of months, and then they normally get into the routine. They learn the rules and what everybody else is doing, so they kind of toughen up a little bit."

Nolen's daughter Sue must have hated going to work, but she couldn't express her feelings -- brain damage from an operation she'd had when she was 10 left her mostly unable to communicate.

Nolen had to put himself inside his daughter's head. Sue wasn't able to understand the one motivator that keeps so many workers content to fold brochure after brochure or pack box after box. Sue could not comprehend that the work she was doing was for money. The monotony put her to sleep.

When Nolen grilled staff members, he learned how they handled Sue's fatigue. When she nodded off, they would shake her by the shoulder and say, "Sue, wake up! Come on, Sue! Get to work!"

Sue finally found a way to express her desire to get out. She started kissing men. Nolen is convinced that Sue's sudden fondness for her male coworkers was not because of girlish crushes but rather was a tactic to get out of the workshop. As soon as Sue learned that grabbing and kissing someone would earn her a day's suspension and a trip home, she started doing it almost daily. Nolen got the message.

Sue will never have to go back to a workshop.

Nolen still supports workshops -- if they are run with the workers in mind, not run like factories. But that ideal is practically impossible; fundamentally, they are factories. They even lose contracts to plants in Mexico and overseas. IBS Industries in Blue Springs, one of Jackson County's sheltered workshops, has lost two contracts in the past few years. One was for a customer that relied on the workshop for years until moving its piecework to the Caribbean. Another customer, a "novelty company," found it cheaper to haul materials to Mexico and have the work done there. To compensate, workshop managers are looking for other options. Hylton has developed his own product for the workers to assemble: specialized veterinary first-aid kits. One kit is for delivering a foal; another is for treating the wounds of a hunting dog. He sells the kits all over the country. Casco Area Workshop has sought contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense, and workshop participants make waterproof supply bags for American soldiers.

So for now, the boxy white van continues to bring people like Kenneth Skelton to the workshop every day. And Kenneth Skelton will come in, day in and day out, working toward his dream: that maybe, one day, he can work at Wal-Mart.

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