Much has been made recently about disabled workers' pay in Pennsylvania, and for good reason. There are roughly 13,000 such Pennsylvanians earning an average of $2.40 per hour in subminimum wages, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor.
Some contend that the low wages take advantage of the workers, while others maintain that the nonprofit organizations that run the workshops for the disabled would be forced to shut down if wages increased to the state's minimum of $7.25 an hour.
While those statistics have been front and center as of late, the workshops and what they have to offer haven't received the same star treatment. So, what do these work centers have to offer?
"We provide job training and employment for people with disabilities," said Steve Peterson, president and CEO of CTC Manufacturing in Beaver Meadows.
And as Peterson noted, what makes CTC stand out among its peers is the fact that it features a mixed workforce, with 60 percent of the population disabled people and 40 percent nondisabled workers.
"So what you'll see is that it's a much more competitive work environment compared to other job centers that you may go to," Peterson said.
The center, which is made up of 44 disabled workers (95 total), focuses on creating an atmosphere that would be no different from any other for-profit corporation.
"We get 17 percent of our annual funding from the state and the rest we produce," Peterson said. "That makes us somewhat unique in that we're pretty much self-sufficient. That's not to say state funds aren't important, but we're trying to keep it balanced in that percentage so we don't have to worry about the risks that come with being dependent on state funds."
CTC, which specializes in assembly and packaging jobs, commercial sewing, apparel sales and detailing and janitorial services, prides itself on creating "a competitive workplace, training, wages, opportunities for promotion and job security for adults with disabilities who are motivated to work."
Some have scoffed at the idea. But Peterson is quick to point out that the opportunities to progress at CTC are very real.
"What it means here is to compete for a chance to work on a better job, because we have quite a wide range of options," he said. "We do have a (federal government-issued) certificate that allows us to pay less than minimum wage, but there's another side to that. What it does is give people a chance, or an opportunity.
"All, or most, of our work is piece rate. And that has to be determined by a method approved by the (U.S.) Department of Labor. In other words, if you were doing a similar job in the community, we would survey a company that's doing a similar job and find out what they're paying."
As Peterson explained, those practices allow places such as CTC to offer more opportunities to those that aren't a part of the regular workforce.
"If we had someone that came in and was able to do 50 percent of what you could do in the community, the certificate allows us to pay him 50 percent," Peterson said. "And that would allow the worker the opportunity to build up his or her performance while also proving their productivity.
"But let's say he or she can never get beyond 70 percent. In most cases, it could mean they're going to be unemployed because they can't do the job at a competitive rate."
At CTC, they'll be able to earn the 60 or 70 percent. "They'll continue to be employed. But the difference here is you'll get some extra consideration," Peterson said.
Peterson made clear that the extra concern for those with disabilities is never something that's used as an excuse. Rather, it's simply an aspect they try to work around to allow all employees to be productive.
"And what we're trying to do now since we've had a fair bit of success with it in the last five years, is shift more of the work opportunities over to those with disabilities," he said. "We wouldn't mind if it went to a 70/30 percent ratio, as long as we can meet the needs of our customers."
One of CTC's primary customers is the Henkel Corporation and its Dial Soap brand. Workers are responsible for putting the label sleeves on the outside of each bottle that comes from the company's location in West Hazleton. Last year alone, CTC did 10 million bottles and Peterson estimates his center could increase to 21 million next year.
The uptick in work, which produced $500,000 last year and could jump to $1,000,000 by the end of 2015, is something Peterson takes great pride in.
"It's a real success story," he said. "They (Henkel) had a need that wasn't being met, we had a need that wasn't being met and we also had people out on the floor that wanted to do different kinds of work and make more money. It was one of those cases that was a win-win all the way around.
"Instead of going back to the government and saying, 'You have to increase our funding or we're going to go under,' we're finding other ways with relationships and partnerships to be much more self-sufficient."
Another example of that self-determination can be seen just walking through the front door, where office assistant Elizabeth Ferrari, who suffers from a developmental disability, will greet you. The 23-year-old Hazleton native has been at CTC for a year, and has moved from a floor job to the office, where she helps the staff with invoices, payroll and handling phone calls.
Ferrari, who wants to eventually get a job at a day care, is happy to have the opportunity to work toward her goal.
"It helps me because I have a job and I'm able to save money to go to college," she said. "Right now college is hard for me to afford, so I'm just trying to save money."
Office manager Sheila Ulshafer appreciates Ferrari and hopes she doesn't lose her too soon.
"She definitely knows what she's doing," Ulshafer said. "She's a big help. She was off last week for two days and everything fell behind. Hopefully she changes her mind about day care and stays in the office."
Jobs at CTC
According to the US Department of Labor in July 2014, only 19.4 percent of people with disabilities have jobs compared with 69.4 percent of the general population. The national unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 12.1 percent compared with 6.3 percent for nondisabled workers.
Earnings for CTC workers with disabilities for the period of Jan. 1, 2014, through June 20:
CTC employed 44 workers with disabilities performing both hourly and piece rate work.
These workers with disabilities averaged more than $4 per hour with the highest average at $12.83 per hour and the lowest average at $1.51 per hour, while 11 workers with disabilities, 25 percent, averaged an hourly pay rate of minimum wage or higher.