Utah Industries for the Blind will end a 90-year tradition of manufacturing everything from brooms to safety vests when it closes its sheltered workshop in September.
UIB, as it's called, won't cease to exist. But it won't be easily recognized by people familiar with its long and and sometimes financially troubled history, according to director David Youkstetter. And the thousands of people who have over the decades purchased brooms, feather dusters and safety vests from the group will have to go elsewhere.Starting in September, a one-person staff will help people with vision disabilities find work in "integrated, mainstream environments." The agency has for some time contracted with Hill Air Force Base to supply workers. The new director will seek similar contracts elsewhere. In all, 17 blind or visually impaired workers and six sighted staff members including Youkstetter will be displaced.
"We need to get out of the business of being a bricks and mortar manufacturer," said Youkstetter. "We will be better off if we don't have to provide equipment, capital, etc. There are higher fixed costs in manufacturing. In the future, we will essentially sell our time, instead of products."
Over the past decade, UIB has faced serious financial challenges. In 1993, it was insolvent and laid off workers. Youkstetter, then chairman of the board, was asked to take over the directorship in hopes of bolstering manufacturing.
But it wasn't financing that sounded the death knell for the sheltered workshop. It was socialchange. While getting manufacturing contracts has been fairly simple, the pool of workers has disappeared. No one wants to work in a sheltered workshop anymore, since "mainstreaming" has become so popular.
"There is not much interest in the blind community for manufacturing jobs in a segregated, sheltered workshop setting," Youkstetter said in a memo explaining the change. "Those visually impaired people who are interested in working and are capable of doing the work we are performing at UIB are finding employment in the competitive market."
An "exhaustive search" for workers yielded little result. A poll of the community showed less than 2 percent interest among potential employees. And a series of potential mergers with other workshops fell through.
The future is frightening for some of the employees, according to Rick Mansfield, who is legally blind and has worked at UIB for 23 years. "We alleviated the stress of uncertainty and gave people a new batch of the unknown," he said. "Morale is not very good."
Mansfield has a wife with health problems and two young daughters. As a board member, he said he knows the change is inevitable, but it's frightening. "Working for me is not a luxury. It's a necessity. I am hoping for other employment, but I know I don't want to go back into the textile industry.
"I am nervous about going back into private enterprise."
The UIB board decided to close now, while it has some resources, to ease workers' transition into private industry.
Employees will get from one to three month's severance pay. For those with 25 years or more on the state retirement plan, UIB will buy out the balance of their retirement to 30 years. Employees will pay 10 percent of the cost.
And the Office of Rehabilitation and LDS Church Employment will help anyone who wants a job find a job. If all else fails, board chairman Gary Winters promises jobs at Deseret Industries.