Justice joins disabilities suit against state of Oregon

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PORTLAND — The U.S. Justice Department says the state of Oregon has slipped in efforts to help people with major physical and intellectual disabilities join the general workforce.

The government said Monday it would support a lawsuit alleging the state violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The suit is aimed at efforts such as providing job coaches to help people avoid so-called “sheltered workshops” that critics say often are dead ends, with piecework pay amounting to less than the minimum wage.

The Justice Department said 61 percent of Oregon residents with major disabilities work in sheltered workshops, and 16 percent work at businesses with integrated workforces — down by nearly half in about a decade.

As recently as the 1990s, Oregon was considered a national leader in providing workplace support, The Oregonian reported.

Since then the number of Oregon residents in sheltered workshops has doubled, to about 2,600, the government said.

“We know we can do much better,” said Amanda Marshall, the U.S. attorney for Oregon.

The director of the Department of Human Services said the state was disappointed and still hopes to settle the case through negotiations.

“To the best of our knowledge, no other state has been sued on the grounds that sheltered workshops themselves are violations of the ADA,” Erinn Kelley-Siel said.

Kelley-Siel said the state wants a “balanced and reasonable implementation of employment policies” for disabled workers, “while respecting consumer and family choice.”

Charity officials often say workers and their families prefer sheltered workshops for a safe, nurturing environment.

Federal law allows employers to pay people with disabilities what is known as sub-minimum wage. Records show many Americans who fall into that category earn less than $1 an hour.

The suit is named Lane v. Kitzhaber for Paula Lane, who earned as little as 40 cents an hour in a sheltered workshop in Beaverton.

It aims to provide laborers such as Lane, who has multiple disabilities including autism, with job coaches and other professional supports so they can work regular jobs, said Bob Joondeph, executive director of Disability Rights Oregon.

The group and the Center for Public Representation, along with two private law firms, filed the suit in January 2012 on behalf of eight people with disabilities and United Cerebral Palsy of Oregon and Southwest Washington.