T.J. Martin wore a wide grin while he used a hand-operated machine to shape steel into hooks inside the Cambria County Association For the Blind and Handicapped Association’s Johnstown facility Wednesday.
He had a reason to smile.
He and nearly 160 co-workers – many of them diagnosed with intellectual disabilities that create roadblocks to finding full-time work elsewhere – received news this week that they should be able to stay busy at their jobs for years to come.
“I like it here,” said Martin, 34. “We took two buses to Harrisburg to let them know (what we thought) ... and to keep my job, and keep Bobby’s job and keep Damon’s job. All my friends’ jobs.”
Martin was among dozens of employees, parents and other supporters from the association’s Johnstown and Ebensburg locations who attended a rally at the state Capitol to protest proposed regulation changes that would have taken workers like them from “sheltered workshop” settings like theirs over the next two years and transitioned them into “community activities” – such as volunteer work with the public.
The proposal was initially pitched by the Department of Human Services in December and resulted in an intensive letter-writing and outreach campaign against the idea, according to Cambria County Association for the Blind and Handicapped CEO Richard Bosserman.
But hours after they took their message to Harrisburg on Monday, state officials reversed course. Human Services officials announced they would modify requirements that would have soon forced providers to find competitive employment, volunteer jobs or other community initiatives for 75 percent of a recipient’s program week, state officials said.
Kathaleen Gillis, a Department of Human Services spokeswoman, said the message to the department was received loud and clear.
She said the contested plan was distributed late last year for public comment – and “we heard from people that they wanted changes made.”
“That’s why we put the document out for public comment,” Gillis said.
‘Best of their ability’
Plan supporters crafted the plan, in part, as a way to further integrate tens of thousands of adults with disabilities into the community.
But Bosserman said hundreds of “sheltered workshop” employees and their families from around the state assured officials that they embraced the working environment they were in – one that allowed them to work alongside co-workers who face similar challenges in everyday life, and just as importantly, people who all work at different speeds.
The average employee in the association’s workshops is 42 years old. But most function at the level of a typical 11-year-old child, according to John Stahl, rehabilitation director for the Cambria County Association For The Blind and Handicapped.
“They’re doing what they can to the best of their ability. But for many of them, that’s not enough to keep up in a competitive environment,” Stahl said.
“Somewhere else, there’s fewer safeguards and less support for them when they are working. And they don’t have driver’s licenses.”
Martin started working for the association 12 years ago. It was a life-changing move, his mother, Rita, said.
“It has been fabulous for him.
“I don’t know where he’d be without his job because he truly takes pride in what he does,” she said. “He gets up every morning and he’s waiting for his ride to work.”
Martin has dealt with a diagnosed intellectual disability his entire life, Rita Martin said.
He also has coloboma, a birth defect that left him without part of his retina and constant vision issues, she said.
“If he could work at a grocery store or restaurant, he would.
“But T.J. has a lot of strikes against him. For him, it’s not as simple as ‘Ok, I have to do A, B and C.’ ”
Inside the simplified Cambria County Association for the Blind and Handicapped’s workshop environment, he has one task.
And he both knows it and loves it, she said.
Bosserman said dozens of employees like Martin spend four to five days a week bending steel into hooks and metal “hangers” for the mining industry and others.
The hangers are used to fasten wires, piping and cables to side walls inside underground mines and steel mills – areas where hazards are likely if wires are left scattered, he said.
Bosserman’s nonprofit creates 14 million of the small metal hooks annually – more than anyone else in the world, he said. Outside distributors ship them to mine companies as far away as Australia.
On the opposite side of the nonprofit’s recently-built manufacturing space, dozens more workers were busy at sewing machines. Alice J. Smith, of Richland, was binding neon reflective vests that will one day be worn by road crew workers.
“It’s very good to have this job, because unless you want to sit at home all day, Social Security doesn’t cut it,” Smith said.
Having the choice to stay busy and earn a little spending money is a blessing, the 69-year-old said.
Stahl said the average sewing shop employee earns $8.25 an hour at the job, while still receiving Medicaid support, thanks to the waiver program.
Employees in the metal-bending department – assigned far more simple tasks – make less than minimum wage, doing the work on a per-peice basis at their own pace. But they also receive vacation and sick pay, and can participate in retirement plans
There’s a social component, too. The nonprofit takes employees on special trips to theme parks, baseball games and other events annually, Stahl said.
This week, they’ll all gather for a St. Patrick’s Day party at the office.
“I don’t think the state understood what we do – or understands what our employees do here. They’re here because they choose to be,” he said.
Work left to be done
State Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr. toured the Johnstown facility earlier this year and said he was “moved” by what he saw.
“Never have I been to a place of employment where every single employee displayed so much happiness about being there,” he said, adding that there “was a sense of pride and joy” in their eyes.
“They are going somewhere where their shift and their tasks are consistent, and their co-workers are their friends,” he said.
The 35th district senator joined a group of eight state legislators from across Pennsylvania at Monday’s East Wing Rotunda rally to throw support behind the effort to keep workshop facilities like ones in Cambria, Somerset and Blair counties.
He was glad to see the Human Services officials change their course – and settle on plans that aren’t “one-size fits all.”
Langerholc said he’s continuing to monitor the situation, saying he sent a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf urging for waiver guidelines to remain as-is.
He said he remains concerned about language that could potentially place additional restrictions down the road on shops that employ more than 100 people, like the Cambria County Association for the Blind and Handicapped.
“I’m still working on this,” he said. “I’d hate to see it get to the point where the state was telling them, ‘Ok, 50 people here have to go.’ Hopefully, that won’t be the case.”