PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Residents with mental disabilities would no longer be forced to work long hours doing manual labor for little money and instead would be given the chance at regular employment that pays at least the minimum wage under a settlement announced Tuesday.
The U.S. Department of Justice and the Rhode Island have entered into a court-ordered consent decree that will require a gradual but dramatic overhaul of employment services to the mentally disabled, officials said. The agreement, which the Justice Department says is the first statewide settlement of its kind, covers about 3,250 people.
The settlement resolves allegations that the state has violated the American with Disabilities Act for years by placing residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities in segregated centers, called "sheltered workshops." In the workshops, disabled Rhode Islanders who rely on state services had minimal contact with the broader community and were assigned tasks such as unwrapping bars of soap or putting tops on lotion bottles, the Justice Department said. The average pay was $2.21 an hour, according to state data obtained by the Justice Department.
Under the terms of the agreement, the state will provide job opportunities over the next 10 years to about 2,000 people, including 700 in sheltered workshops and about 300 who are leaving high school, that pay at least the minimum wage. The state has also agreed to provide transition services, including trial work experience and job site visits, to about 1,250 people between the ages of 14 and 21.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Lincoln Chafee did not immediately comment. He was scheduled to attend a news conference Tuesday morning with Justice Department officials.
The settlement is an outgrowth of an interim 2013 agreement among the Justice Department, Rhode Island and the city of Providence over practices at the Harold A. Birch Vocational School.
"Today's agreement will make Rhode Island a national leader in the movement to bring people with disabilities out of segregated work settings and into typical jobs in the community at competitive pay," acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels, the Justice Department's top civil rights lawyer, said in a statement.
Nationwide, about 450,000 people with disabilities spend their days in segregated shelter workshops.
There are no damages being imposed as part of the settlement, but the Justice Department said there will be reviews to ensure that the state complies with the deal.
The problem in Rhode Island first came to light in June, when the Justice Department wrote letters to the state and the city of Providence alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act at the Birch School and the Training Thru Placement program. In January, the city, its school board and the school agreed to pay nearly $251,000 in back wages to 60 students.
Tucker reported from Washington.