In a back room of the Handicapped Development Center in Davenport called the Workshop, Norman Blake helps package Wahl trimmer kits. About 80 more of the center's clients assemble small parts, label parts, and do other tasks for private companies.

For HDC clients with disabilities, like Blake, it's a chance to take pride in a job well done and earn a paycheck doing piece work a few hours a week. For the companies, HDC provides an eager labor force at a competitive price.

But the funding stream for general sheltered workshops is fading away, leaving clients at a loss, and companies with fewer options.

Carol Foster, vice president of resource development, said HDC is preparing for that future.

"So what we're trying to figure is where those 80 people that are involved in that process, what's going to happen with them," she said.

"No matter what we do, we're going to cut something that's extremely important"

During an emergency meeting in September, the Eastern Iowa Mental Health and Disabilities Board cut services throughout the mental health region, which included sheltered workshop services.

"It still gives them a paycheck that they're very proud of, and that's the part that really burns me about this portion," Board Chair Jack Willey said during the meeting. "Sheltered workshop activity to me is extremely important, giving them some quality of life."

The board planned to cut $500,000, but that was amended to $250,000 after much discussion from the board.

"Most of the regions had eliminated this funding two or three years ago, but we continued to fund them because of the long history in our communities," CEO Lori Elam said in an email Monday. "The agencies knew funding would be coming to an end soon, so it made sense to put that service on the list for cuts."

Jeff Ashcraft, HDC president and CEO said HDC made a decision not to close their workshop services three years ago for several reasons.

"Remember the first paycheck you got? They feel that every Friday," Ashcraft said. "We want to provide (clients) the option to work in an environment they want to work in, where they can be successful, where they can have the support to be successful and where they can feel just as comfortable in a work environment as you and I," he said.

What the future will bring

Most clients will move into a day service, Foster said. That may be day-habilitation, during which the clients take outings in the community, where they can learn life skills and take part in social activities.

A few will move into HDC Enterprises, an entrepreneurial version of the workshop founded in October 2018, and designed to be self-supporting. There the highest skilled clients have part-time jobs — as HDC employees with benefits — doing similar work, Foster said.

But HDC clients must have a high skill level to work in that setting. So far, 14 are employed there, and others are being trained to do so. But some won't have the skillset to make the switch, and the workload from customers will need to grow to bring a larger number of HDC clients in as employees.

"The thing about doing that type of work is it has to be right," Ashcraft said. "Some of their customers, if they open a pallet and one package is incorrect they'll reject the entire pallet, which then comes back on us. Fortunately, our quality levels have been substantial." 

The goal for HDC Enterprises, Ashcraft said, is to get to the point where its workers can be full-time. So far, it has generated almost $500,000 in revenue, which helps support itself and the staff needed to get it up and running. They also had some assistance with start-up costs, including some from the Mental Health Region.

"But by eliminating workshop, they're eliminating options. And what we're supposed to be doing is providing people an option for work," Ashcraft said. "That's why we're doing everything we can to keep an option open. It's just not going to be open for everybody because they're going to have to produce at a higher level than many can."

Next year, all of the work that's been done in workshop will fold into HDC Enterprises, Ashcraft said. 

"Now we have to take more of a business approach where we are making sure we are being as efficient as we can, we have the highest producing workers out there," Foster said. "And that, unfortunately, leaves some people out who are not going to be able to participate, and it's those people that are going to be moving to another of our programs." 

As the funding changes, HDC is working to determine how to serve its clients, Foster said. Clients with certain diagnoses are not eligible for funding for other activities, and HDC staff needs to make sure they get services. "We have a commitment to them, we're not going to leave them out in the cold, but we're going to have to do something different," she said. 

Professional staffing levels will also change, Foster said. "We don't need as many people out in the workshop, we need more people in the day-hab side," she said. "There's just so many moving parts to this, and people are just a little bit anxious because we haven't figured it all out yet." 

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