Today, the non-profit Le Mars training center is a bustle -- each day about 50 adults are on the job there, receiving both training and a paycheck for work with commercial laundry or janitorial services.
But Life Skills' Executive Director Don Nore said a proposal by Florida Congressman Cliff Stearns would make that financially impossible.
Organizations like Life Skills are considered a "sheltered workshop," allowing clients to be paid based on productivity at hourly pay below minimum wage along with the training they receive.
In the U.S. Congress, Stearns proposed the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act, which would phase out the federal provision that allows subminimum wage for disabled workers.
Stearns' proposal would revoke for-profit companies' minimum wage exemptions in one year and non-profit organizations' exemptions in three years.
At Life Skills, Nore doesn't envision the proposed bill as offering people with disabilities a better life.
Instead, he sees it as creating a hole in their support that would leave many without active work and learning opportunities.
"The intent of the bill was to get people into mainstream employment earning minimum wage," Nore said. "The reality of the situation is that not all individuals are capable of working in mainstream job settings."
Some individuals don't possess the knowledge, skills or abilities to work in mainstream jobs without direct supervision and assistance, he explained.
Employers don't have any incentive to hire and pay minimum wage to someone who would need added supervision like that, he said.
"With a national unemployment rate of 8.6 percent, as an employer, given the option of hiring someone with a disability at 40 percent productivity versus hiring someone who can work at 100 percent productivity for the same wage, it's pretty much a non-decision," Nore said.
And if the law changed, then organizations such as Life Skills would be losing money instead of breaking even if they continued providing that kind of supervision.
"If I had to pay everyone minimum wage, that would prevent the vast majority of our current clients from participation in a work site," Nore said. "You'd only have those with the highest productivity levels coming in to perform the tasks."
People with lower productivity levels might end up spending more time in what Nore calls "day habilitation program" or "day care" services.
"I see that as taking us back 20 years in time to where, in my point of view, you are warehousing individuals, not allowing them the opportunity to be out in the community, working in the community, earning a paycheck," Nore said.
And, in effect, the proposed change would close many sheltered workshops like Life Skills, he said.
"It would have a serious impact nationwide," Nore said. "Agencies would not be able to provide the services they are providing."
At the Le Mars training center, which has been offering services since 1973, clients generally work several hours between 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.
"Some may come in at 8 a.m. and leave at noon," Nore said.
Clients' scheduled hours are determined by each individual's personal preference and that person's planning team, which includes the client, his or her parents, his or her school district, case managers, rehabilitation managers and more.
"What they'll do is discuss with the individual and set up the individual's goals and objectives, what the client wants to achieve," Nore said.
The number of hours each client works is also determined by the dollars available, which may include money from the county, Medicaid, the school district if the client is still a student, or private pay from those families who are above certain financial thresholds, Nore said.
Life Skills annually pays out about $160,000 in client wages, he noted.
"The clients get a paycheck every two weeks," Nore said. "In almost all instances, that money is spent locally."
Nore describes the Life Skills jobs as "training tools."
Not only are clients learning how to complete the tasks of commercial laundry and janitorial services, but they're also picking up an understanding of how to provide a quality product and how to work as a team, he said.
In addition, they're learning skills like time management and punctuality, responsibility, keeping things sanitary and more, he said.
"Our ultimate desire is to help individuals develop their skills and abilities so we could work with them to obtain an employment position mainstream," Nore said. "That's not always possible. The individual may plateau at a certain level ... or at the highest level they desire to achieve, and that's their right."
Nore said the proposed legislation implies that sheltered workshops like Life Skills, which offer subminimum wages to clients, are taking advantage of people with disabilities as a cheap labor source.
"I find that language insulting," he said.
Along with meeting all Department of Labor standards, rules and regulations, Life Skills' training provides a valuable service to the community, clients' families, and especially clients, he said.
"There's a sense of pride and satisfaction you get from earning a paycheck. That would be lost," Nore said. "They're allowed to grow in their job; they take a lot of pride in the job they do. To take that away is taking us back to where we were 50 years ago."
Instances of abuse do happen at a very small percentage of providers, and those should be punished under the full penalty of the law, Nore said.
However, he thinks it is unfortunate that the government should try to make a rule based on those few, ignoring the good opportunities many other agencies are providing.
"Don't find fault with the entire system just for one isolated incident," Nore said. "Ninety-nine point nine percent of provider agencies in Iowa are doing their utmost best to provide good opportunities for people."
The goal, he said, is to keep people with disabilities in mainstream society with greater community inclusion, not placing people in large facilities.
"I think Iowa has done a good job in the last 10 years of getting people out into the community," Nore said.
He urged parents and families of people with disabilities to become aware of the proposed changes and speak with their elected representatives.
At a recent town hall meeting with Congressman Steve King, who serves this district of Iowa, Nore voiced his objection to Stearns' proposal.
"I see it as having a devastating effect on not only Life Skills but any facility that provides work services to persons with disabilities," Nore said.
At the meeting, King agreed with Nore that if the bill passed, it would have the impact of taking people with disabilities out of the workforce.
Later, in a phone interview, King said he approached Congressman Stearns this week about why he suggested the bill.
"He said it was because he has reports that there were wounded handicapped veterans that were being paid less than the minimum wage under this and he didn't think we should treat veterans that way, and I didn't either," King said.
Stearns also told King he'd heard of work centers in cities of the U.S. which were paying people with learning disabilities 30 cents an hour. King said the work centers in Iowa he knew were not paying that poorly.
"I expressed to him that it has brought a lot of concern all across the state," King said.
King said Stearns promised him that, if the bill comes up before a committee, he will talk with King about how to write the language for exemptions so that work training centers like Life Skills will be able to get the waiver to continue offering the services they do.
"Stearns is a friend and he's one whom I've worked with on a lot of issues over the years," King said.
King doesn't predict the bill will gain much ground in the current Congress, but he plans to keep watching it.
The congressman said the centers that offer vocational training for people with disabilities help bring meaning to those people's lives and also give them a sense of camaraderie with working together.
"Whatever walk in life, all work has dignity," King said. "If they were to take away the exemption, then they also are taking away that dignity, that sense of self worth, and that's the part that would hurt the most."