Settlement reached in Birch school probe

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The state of Rhode Island and the city of Providence will have to provide employment opportunities as well as transition services to developmentally disabled students and adults under a settlement with the federal government in connection with a probe into violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“For far too long, people with disabilities who can and want to work and engage in all aspects of community life have been underestimated by public service systems that have had limited or no expectations for them,” Eve Hill, a senior counselor with the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, said in a prepared statement.

Under the terms of the deal, the state and the city will be required to stop enrolling new students and adults in programs that run so-called sheltered workshops for the developmentally disabled. Workers will also receive “supported employment” and “integrated day services” that will give them the opportunity to work a traditional 40 hour work week at “competitive wages.”

The DOJ investigation found disabled students at the Birch Vocational School in Providence performed manual labor – including bagging and labeling items for unnamed local companies – for wages between $.50 and $2 per hour. The students were given few, if any, opportunities to learn how to integrate into the workforce, according to the report.

The report also stated that Birch subcontracted with – and prepared many of its students to work for – Training Thru Placement Inc., one of the largest sheltered workshop providers in the state. The North Providence-based company was allegedly paying workers $1.57 an hour on average – in one case, a worker was paid just 14 cents per hour.

TTP is located in a decrepit former elementary school where individuals typically worked for between 15 and 30 years, according to the report. The business was run by John Capobianco Sr., 67, and John Capobianco Jr., 40, until they were charged with embezzling funds from the company in April.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, but the law allows some companies to pay developmentally disabled individuals subminimum wages that are commiserate on their ability to perform the task at hand, according to George Ference, a regional administrator with the U.S. Department of Labor.

Ference said workers at Birch and TTP were paid well-below the rates they should have been paid and confirmed that TTP falsified employment documents. Individuals who were underpaid will be allowed to file complaints with the Department of Labor and will be entitled to backwages, he said. According to the report, the state and the city violated the rights of approximately 200 developmentally disabled workers.

Craig Stenning, the director of the state Department of Behavior Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, said the state fully intends to honor the agreement and will work with school systems across the state to ensure similar violations do not occur in the future.

“Segregated day activities need to be replaced by fully integrated community activities with a focus on full employment,” Stenning said. “We have already laid the groundwork for this transformation and this agreement puts the full weight of the Justice Department behind this action plan.”

Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

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