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WORKSHOPS OFFER TRAINING AND FRIENDS

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It's simple assembly work, stringing together elongated plastic pieces. The result, red-and-white "speed" jump ropes, will be sold and the workers who make them will be paid by the piece, based on production.

Call it day-training. Call it a sheltered workshop. Call it an answer to prayers for the families of severely disabled adults who otherwise might have no social life, no purpose and no escape from homes that can be lonely and even unsafe if other family members aren't around.At the Work Activity Center, nearly 200 adults with cognitive, physical or medical disabilities find sanctuary and companionship during the day.

"Technically we're called a sheltered workshop, but in the system we talk about day-training programs," said Opal Clarke, center director. "A sheltered workshop is where the disabled individual comes and it is his primary job. Day-training programs function the same, except the work that's provided is for training purposes. The Department of Labor classifies the two programs in the same category and exempts them from minimum-wage regulations."

Occasionally, that has caused problems. State officials remember sheltered workshops, now defunct, that functioned more as old-fashioned sweatshops than as rehabilitation programs. Program operators sold items for good money and returned a pittance to the laborers.

Not true now, according to Clarke. "We use the work as a vehicle to train people and, in the process, we pay them."

Sheltered workshops are not funded by the state, she said. Instead, people are paid for what they produce. The state provides the money to pay people in day training, since it's designed for rehabilitation.

Many agencies that serve people with disabilities have their own day-training or sheltered workshops. People who progress well and develop skills will be candidates for supported employment in the community.

Will be candidates, that is, if there's funding. Right now hundreds are in workshops; thousands are on waiting lists.

People can get trapped in workshops, according to Deborah O'Dell, program specialist for the Division of Services for People With Disabilities. Waiting lists abound, and there aren't many funds to move people into other programs when their skills grow.

Most workshops are Medicaid funded. Medicaid won't pay for supported employment unless the individual has been in an institution like the Developmental Center. That also penalizes families who have taken care of their disabled loved ones. When they need help, it is often not available.

Ric Zaharia, who directs the division, calls it a "glitch, a major stupid thing that we can't get rid of."

Deseret Industries is one of the best-known sheltered workshops in the region, employing thousands of people at tasks that range from refurbishing donated secondhand items to custodial work. It doesn't have a state contract, but pays its trainees from Deseret Industries sales and church support.

Just under half the workers at Deseret Industries have severe disabilities. The LDS Church's employment service assessed them to decide where they would best fit. Some go to work at Deseret Industries, some are directed to supported employment, some find work in the private sector. Placement at Deseret Industries is always considered transitional, according to Gary Winters, director of Deseret Industries and Employment Services for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"We're not a sheltered workshop in the sense that we employ someone and keep him forever. It's really a transitional workshop with vocational rehabilitation. People go into competitive employment. As a certified rehab facility, we can pay according to productivity, which may be higher or lower than minimum wage. Once a competitive level is reached, trainees move on."

Last year, Winters said, Deseret Industries had 1,146 trainees leave for competitive employment. After a year, about 90 percent of the people they've trained are still employed.