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story.lead_photo.caption Tim Loftus (left), president of the KPI board of directors; Breanna Troesser, advocate; Timothy Loftus, KPI employee; Connie Hale, KPI manager; and John Jennings, longtime member of KPI board of directors traveled to Jefferson City on Wednesday to advocate for sheltered workshops as an employment option. (Submitted)

JEFFERSON CITY — Sheltered workshops are falling out of favor in the United States.

Connie Hale, general manager of Kingdom Projects, Inc. in Fulton, doesn’t think that should be the case.

“The employees derive a lot of benefits from the dignity of their employments and their friendships, and also the paycheck,” she said.

Hale was among more than 100 workshop managers, employees, and employees’ family and friends to attend “Day for Choice” on Wednesday at the Capitol. Advocates from across the state gathered to speak in favor of sheltered workshops’ validity as an employment option.

While Hale doesn’t know of any new, direct threats to Missouri’s workshops, she said the workshops’ prominence has been decreasing as regulations have increased.

“We can’t employ anyone under 25 until they’ve been to vocational rehabilitation and been tested,” she said. “Years ago the schools would send over their juniors and some seniors, and they’d do a couple of hours of work each day as training. Now, that’s no longer allowed because essentially they might start feeling comfortable in that atmosphere and that might be where they want to stay.”

Hale said she believes this impedes disabled individuals’ right to choose where they want to be employed. She added in her experience, competitive employment actually means fewer hours and less support for disabled employees.

“Usually, competitive employment only offer 10 hours a week or less,” she said. “KPI employees can work 30 hours a week.”

Regular schedules benefit many of her employees, and her team has worked hard to make KPI a safe place to work, she said. Hale was hired by KPI in October 2016 to revamp the workshop.

“KPI lives with the fact that there was a fatality here,” she said. “Today, we have a safer workplace. Workshops as a whole in Missouri are considered a safe place. We have staff who have strong maternal and paternal instincts and their radar is up. … You just naturally look after them.”

Hale also believes workshops are a financially sound way to employ disabled people. She cited a figure from the Missouri Association of Sheltered Workshop Managers that claims sheltered workshops return $10 for every $1 invested.

During “Day of Choice,” Hale and other KPI attendees dropped off flyers for area representatives. The entire group of advocates also dropped in on both the state House and Senate, she said.

Past advocacy efforts by A Team Missouri, the organizers of the event, helped the passage of MO HCR28 in 2017. The bill affirmed Missouri legislators’ support of special workshops. Currently about 6,000 Missourians work in sheltered workshops, Hale said.

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