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Supported employment drops in NJ, a study shows
Written by Jonathan Jaffe   
Tuesday, 06 January 2009 16:00

TRENTON - Talk to anyone in New Jersey who provides supported employment for people with disabilities and you can expect this position: Those who want to work in the community should have the opportunity to do so – no matter the obstacle.

But while there is plenty of passion among those who make it possible for people with disabilities to have supported employment, also known as competitive employment, the number of people doing so in New Jersey has been decreasing, a new study shows.

And the state – which refutes this study’s findings – is not providing additional financial resources to put more people with developmental disabilities in the competitive workplace, the report states.
 
David Braddock, a University of Colorado associate vice president and co-author of “The State of the States in Developmental Disabilities 2008,” said New Jersey lags behind most states in providing supported employment for people with disabilities.

In fact, he said, there were more people in supported employment in New Jersey in 1996 than there are now. His report, with information provided by the state Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD), shows there was 1,783 people with disabilities in supported employment in 1996; the year the program hits its height. That number dropped to 1,359 in 2007, according to the state.

Meanwhile, state figures show the number of people with disabilities in sheltered workshops has been generally consistent, with 846 people in the program in 1994 and 829 last year. Meanwhile, the number of people in adult job training programs has steadily grown, from 4,277 in 1994 to 6,411 last year.

In total, state officials said, the number of individuals enrolled through DDD in supported employment, adult training or workshops was 8,599 last year, up from 6,251 in 1994.

Kenneth W. Ritchey, an assistant commissioner with the state Department of Human Services who heads DDD, said the numbers quoted in the study are only part of the story, as they do not include people with disabilities who receive services through the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services (DVRS). DDD finds work for some young adults as they are transitioning from high school to adult life, while others with the ability to be fairly independent are referred to DVRS in the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

“When I saw the numbers in Braddock’s study, they struck me as being odd,” Ritchey said. “How can we have less people in supported employment, as I am hearing the opposite story? The answer is that we are not capturing, for reporting purposes, the people that bypass us and go directly to DVRS for services.”

Ritchey said the DDD only reports to Braddock the number of people the agency specifically funds for employment services. The DDD and DVRS do not report the cumulative number of people with disabilities who are receiving employment services from the two agencies and other organizations. Ritchey did not have an estimate of that number, only that it is higher than what the Braddock study reported.

Through information provided by DDD, Braddock said, there does not seem to be a financial commitment in New Jersey that encourages supported employment.

“It is difficult to make the case that there has been a substantial enhancement in supported employment in New Jersey,” Braddock said, noting the state spent $10.6 million for supported employment services in 1996. In 2006, the line item remained constant at $10.6 million, which Braddock considers a budget cut when a decade of inflation is factored in.

Braddock’s figures show that only 14 percent of people with developmental or intellectual disabilities who are working are in supported or competitive employment. The remaining 86 percent, he said, are in sheltered workshops, day programs or training programs.

“Our data shows that New Jersey is not a national leader in supported employment,” Braddock said. “Instead, we look to Washington, Connecticut and Oklahoma.”

In Oklahoma, for example, 77 percent of the people with developmental or intellectual disabilities are in supported employment, as compared to the 14 percent cited in New Jersey, he noted.

Ritchey noted that Braddock is not incorporating all of the dollars used to help people with disabilities work in the community. While DDD funding has been “relatively flat,” Ritchey said, the division leverages federal Medicaid money, while private community provider agencies may obtain funds from other sources, including foundations or grants. “I don’t know the numbers, but they would be larger than at first blush,” he said.

State officials said they can not extrapolate the additional budget figures for supported employment. For example, there are 644 people in Real Life Choices directing budgets themselves and the state does not have a way to identify the portion of the budgets that are used for supported employment. In addition to the $10.6 million for supported employment, there are expenditures for supported employment embedded within the Community Care Waiver and the Real Life Choices budgets.

Ritchey points to the ARC of Camden, noting the agency uses various funding sources, along with DDD money, to support follow-along services and workshops. “While our money is on the table, it is not the only money on the table,” Ritchie said. “DVRS is a player. If you want employment, you go through them first, so you don’t get tied into the DDD system.”

Richard Lecher, PhD, chief executive officer of SCARC, formerly known as the Sussex County Association for Retarded Citizens, based in Augusta, has a different perspective. He believes supported employment has been “under-funded” and “not necessarily a priority for serving the disability population in New Jersey.”

“There are a lot of causes related to workplace inclusion and community inclusion,” Lecher said. “DVRS and DDD do not cover these costs unless you have a very able and skilled worker who can more easily handle a job with minimal ongoing support.”

He said many people with moderate or severe disabilities are not provided with the right types of job coaches or support services to make it work.

“I have read a few anecdotes about workers starting their own business with the support of family or paid staff, but that is almost a rarity in our field,” Lecher said. “The more common experience has been center-based working.”

Jennifer Joyce, president of NJAPSE: The Network on Employment, - the state chapter of a national organization that emphasizes supported employment - has seen the trend in New Jersey match the national numbers. She describes the number of people with intellectual or developmental disabilities using supported employment services remaining stagnant or decreasing. 

“I do think there have always been good intentions to increase these numbers, but other issues often become the priority,” she said, noting state Department of Human Services Commissioner Jennifer Velez has made employment one of her top three priorities. 

In regards to funding supported employment programs, the Braddock study says, New Jersey ranks in the bottom third of the states. The $10.6 million in funding translates into $1.21 per capita for each resident in the state, where nearly 9 million people live. The state is paying about 50 percent less for supported employment than other states are providing, Braddock said.

There are three employment options in New Jersey for people with disabilities:

• People can work in five-day-a-week sheltered workshops, where they handle basic assembly of products under close supervision and participate in basic skills classes.
• People can work in adult training centers through the DDD, in which people often work in large facilities and do basic tasks. State officials say some are assigned to community storefronts, such as flower shops, bakeries and print shops, throughout the state. Hours are more flexible than in the workshops.
• And there is supported employment, in which people work in competitive jobs, such as cleaning a movie theater or doing data entry at a law office. DVRS supports the effort for a short period of time, while DDD provides indefinite resources for job retention.

State officials say the DDD now works with 52 supported employment programs and pays for people to attend 31 workshop programs around the state. There are 238 adult training programs, which offer both facility-based training and at least a few hours of daily employment.

There are a number of “creative business models” in these adult training programs, such as “Vaseful,” a flower shop, and “Allies Café,” a coffee cart that operates in the Chuck Costello building, a 61-unit apartment complex for people with disabilities in Old Bridge.

Leslie Long, a public policy expert at COSAC in Ewing, said the sheltered workshops remain a viable option for many families as the individual has a steady place to go for 30 hours a week while his or her parents are at work. “There are many dual income homes in New Jersey and parents can’t take off,” she said. “So, the workshops are a secure option.”

Yet, she said, supported employment must be the future. Options need to be expanded, as it seems people with disabilities are traditionally directed to the simplest jobs, from cleaning tables to stacking shelves. For those people who do not want to work in fast food eateries or supermarkets, there is limited exposure to other opportunities in the business world.

“We need to know where the jobs are and train people with disabilities for those jobs,” Long said. “We haven’t done that for people with disabilities in New Jersey and that is one of the reasons for the lack of competitive employment.”

The current downturn in the economy has also affected supported employment, said Lecher, noting many of the low-wage jobs that had traditionally been passed to people with disabilities are getting hard to find. Many people who had been laid off from their job, need a second job or had to re-enter the workforce are now applying for these entry-level positions. Or, the companies are no longer deeming these jobs as “vital,” and no longer participating in the supported employment program, he added.

“There are some traditional jobs, typically in the supermarket industry, that are committed to employing people with disabilities,” Lecher said. “But these jobs are becoming limited.”

Benefits of Supported Employment

Supported employment evolved in the early 1980s when the community at-large recognized there was an untapped labor pool who can handle such jobs as janitorial services and office filing. Many of these jobs were handled by older workers without advanced degrees who were retiring. Many of those in the next generation possessed college degrees and aspired for higher-paying professions, creating the void.

Dan Baker, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Elizabeth M. Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities, said supported employment has been a great opportunity for people with disabilities, as they can earn more money and have a better quality of life. In addition, he contends, studies show supported employment creates a benefit for all of society, as people in the program pay taxes and rely less on government supports.

“The state is broke, so we need more taxpayers,” Long said. “We pay a high cost for children in special education. We want that investment to pay off, so they should be working in the community and being part of the tax system. There is no downside to having people with disabilities be part of the tax system.”

Long said many people with disabilities do not need intensive support to work in the community, noting many just need a job coach to check in on them via cell phone. Meanwhile, as taxpayers, they are helping to pay for the job coach. The benefits outweigh the costs, she said, adding there is overhead to run sheltered workshops and wages are much lower.

“We have not yet made supported employment the first choice in New Jersey for people with disabilities,” Baker said. “The first choice, if you look at the numbers, is that people are going into other forms of training, such as adult training centers. When people turn 21, they are put on the waiting list for supported employment or adult training centers. The focus should be about getting them employment in the community.”

Baker said there is a movement toward this, noting the DDD recently issued a supported employment manual and DVRS does provide supports for those who are working. But, he said, there needs to be more employee supports, which is why he believes the numbers have gone down in recent years.

Baker points to four specific reasons as to why supported employment numbers are on a downswing in New Jersey:

• Integrated community employment is not always the first choice offered to people with disabilities.

• Supported employment tends to be provided to people who do not need full-time support.  “So, the idea is that people with supported employment do not present any level of significant challenge and are easier to support,” he said.

• The business community has not been convinced that it is beneficial to hire people with disabilities. There are benefits to the employer, such as a reliable and faithful employee. Baker points to Marriott, which, he said, has had a 6 percent turnover among employees with disabilities who go through their training program, as compared with a 50 percent turnover for other employees.

• Sheltered workshops provide job security, unlike competitive employment in the business world.

It is important to note that those working in competitive employment have plenty of support.

Frank DeLucca, assistant director for Project Hire in North Brunswick, a statewide supported employment program founded in 1985, said the group spends about 30 hours finding the right job for a person with disabilities. Then, there is a concerted effort to train the individual through the help of a job coach. This usually takes another 30 hours to complete. Total cost for these two phases averages $4,080, equivalent to $51 an hour, he said.

Project Hire then provides long-term support as a “continuous safety net,” DeLucca said, noting job coaches drop in on the worksite and meet with the employer to ensure all responsibilities and expectations are being met. He said the typical job coach does four to five visits a month, and a cost of $3,060 a year through the DDD.

“It is flexible on a case-by-case basis as some individuals need more supports than others,” DeLucca said, noting Project Hire has assisted 3,200 people since 1985 and has an average annual placement of 200.

The Funding Quandary

It may come as a surprise, but many people with disabilities are hesitant to earn money. To that end, they are shying away from supported employment.

That is because if they make too much money, it is a common misperception that they will lose their Medicaid benefits, which provides health, dental and prescription coverage. People with disabilities tend to require more medical care than other people, making Medicaid an important option over private health insurance, said Lecher, who overseas residential services, day programs, job placement, supported employment and family support services for 750 people with disabilities.

Of the 60 people with disabilities employed through SCARC, two have become taxpayers and are financially independent. The remaining workers are paid minimum wage, dependent on Medicaid coverage and living in group homes that DDD subsidizes.

“We have to watch what people earn because as their SSI (Supplemental Security Income) drops, it affects whether they live in a licensed facility or not or if they live in group home,” Lecher said. “Seventy-five percent of a person’s SSI gets returned to DDD to support the group. So, there is a lot of watching.”

 “The resources are eaten up in a large part before a person begins a job,” he added. “So, the system works against supported employment. Job coaching is also expensive and it is hard to keep people working in unskilled labor, particularly in today’s economy in which the general population wants access to the lower level jobs.”

Medicaid is the last of the SSI benefits that an individual will lose when their income steadily increases, Lecher noted.

Greg Makely, project director for New Jersey Work Incentives Network Support (NJWINS), said there is an ongoing rumor in New Jersey that people with disabilities will lose Medicaid if they work. When someone earns too much money, they lose the check portion of SSI, but they do not lose Medicaid, unless they earn more than $33,022 in annual earnings or have more than $2,000 in resources at the end of each month.

He noted the New Jersey WorkAbility program is a great resource for people with disabilities who are working. Through this program, if these employees are saving more than $2,000 in financial assets at the end of the month, they will still not lose Medicaid. Through the program, people with disabilities can have $20,000 in resources and can earn up to $52,788 without jeopardizing their Medicaid benefits, Makely said.

Log on to www.state.nj.us/humanservices/dds/njworkability.html for more information about New Jersey WorkAbility. To learn more about NJWINS, log on to www.njwins.org.

“The problem is that people don’t have this information,” Makely said. “It is better for people with disabilities to work because they can make more money. If they make so much money that they lose their SSI benefits, their household income would be higher than if they didn’t go to work.”

He noted that people being served through the DDD will likely not earn more than $33,000 a year and would not risk their residential placements through DDD, he added.

“They just need to be careful that they are not saving more than $2,000,” Baker said. He noted these funding programs are difficult to understand, adding “it is almost like you need to be an air traffic controller to keep track of them.”

He said NJWINS is one of the non-profit groups now offering individualized benefit counseling for people with disabilities to understand how the federal and state programs related to them.

Today and Tomorrow

To push supported employment forward, the state needs to earmark more money for job coaching and transportation, Lecher said, although such an investment would bear more fruit in a healthier economy when there is a need for a larger labor pool.

Kathie Szul, the DDD’s director of housing and resource development, said the state remains committed to moving away from sheltered workshops and focusing on securing employment for people with disabilities in the community.

“There is a great group working at the division on employment, giving people the supports to work in the community,” she said. “The whole key is to focus on what strengths and interests that people have and what environments they can work the most favorably in.”

Szul said sheltered workshops are a dying industry, as the manufacturing sector is going overseas for cheaper labor for such tasks as assembling a first aid kit. She notes that people in these workshops earn minimum wage, which is $7.15 an hour.

“We really focus on the individual’s choice and try to give them informed choices,” Szul said. “We don’t automatically direct someone. We want them to know the whole array of possibilities out there that others have accomplished in the community.

For example, Szul points to a young man with autism who often bangs his head on a table. The state connected him with a job in which he broke down boxes. “He was the type of employee who wouldn’t take a vacation because the job fulfilled his natural tendencies,” she said. “It was the perfect job for him.”

Ritchey noted the DDD recently hired an administrator who will focus on supported employment. Frank Kirkland is a former state director in West Virginia who has been named an assistant director in charge of DDD’s southern and lower central regions in New Jersey.

“He gives the division a strong presence in employment,” Ritchey said. “He will look for things the state has not taken advantage of as much as they have.”

Joyce, the president of NJAPSE, said she recently met with Kirkland, noting he is “very passionate about supported employment” and will do “as much as he can to increase the number of individuals taking advantage of supported employment services.
 
“I think that part of the issue has been the lack of someone within the central DDD office who has the ability to be solely focused on employment,” Joyce said. “With the multitude of responsibilities that each person given the task of improving supported employment has had, other issues have taken precedence. 

“We need someone who can champion supported employment with school districts, families, providers of services and, of course, people with intellectual or developmental disabilities,” she added. “There needs to be a belief on all these levels that all people with disabilities not only can work but have a responsibility to do so.” 

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