Work centers for disabled face uncertain future

CHIPPEWA FALLS, Wis. (WEAU)- An uncertain future lies ahead for hundreds of employees with special needs in the Chippewa Valley.

A new federal ruling is changing funding for sheltered work centers. The ruling encourages states to use funds from Medicaid to take workers out of the centers and place them in community jobs instead. But opponents are afraid those community jobs won't be there or won't be safe.

There are several businesses in the Chippewa Valley including Chippewa River Industries or CRI and Reach Inc. that provide a safe work environment for people with cognitive disabilities.

“In any given day we are serving about 130 people a day just here in this building and 100 people out in the community,” CEO of CRI Dave Lemanski said.

On an average day at Chippewa River Industries the production lines are buzzing with activity. That sight could soon turn to an empty factory if a new change to Medicaid funding gets approved and work centers like CRI are no longer funded.

“It’s concerning to the people that we serve. Its concerning to the families that we serve to eliminate choice and options isn't what we should be talking about in the 21st century,” Lemanski said.

“If they were to cut funding for that it would be so devastating like families like me that are in my situation,” Maureen O’Donnell said.

For O'Donnell and her son Riley, the possibility of losing a work center like Reach Inc., the one Riley attends, would be a huge loss.

“He gets to be with people that he likes and he gets to work at his level,” O’Donnell explained.

“I know that's her choice. That's what she likes to do. That's where she has a sense of fulfilment,” Mort Sipress said.

Sipress says his daughter Judy has worked at a work center for nearly 20 years and has learned through the experience. That's why he is speaking out and joining forces with others through an advocacy group called the A-Team, to make sure the choice is still available for families in Wisconsin.

“My daughter is not isolated from the community. The staff people working with her are from the larger community but she is also working with her peers people that are at a similar level as her,” Sipress said.

Those in favor of the changes say sheltered workshops don't do enough to build skills or help transition workers into mainstream employment.

The CEO for CRI says that's not the case. In fact, half of the people CRI serves work out in the community.

The state is asking for public comment on the issue through September 2nd.

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