The Workshop is the largest employer of handicapped persons in Barry and Lawrence counties, most of whom have developmental disabilities. Many handicapped clients have private assistants that help them, enabling them to hold jobs at the Workshop.
Two of the supported employment workers are employed by Arc of the Ozarks, taking care of three Workshop clients. Four other supported employment workers come from Self Directed Services and are officially employed by the families of the Workshop clients.
"These people are allowed to come into the Workshop as a courtesy," said Mica Plummer, Workshop director. "They don't work for me and they made it clear they don't answer to me."
Supported employment workers, several family members and at least one Workshop staff member approached the board with several pages of grievances. Their concerns included verbal and emotional abuse of handicapped clients, an atmosphere of intimidation toward the supported employment staff and conditions that made handicapped clients emotionally uncomfortable with the atmosphere at work.
One of the parents present said she felt compelled to pull her son out of the Workshop under the present conditions.
Plummer said she had not seen the issues raised before and asked why the matters had not been brought to her attention earlier.
"It's hard for me to take care of a problem if I'm not aware of it," Plummer said.
Board members were also caught off-guard by the long list of grievances. Board Chairman Mike Hemphill said he had been contacted when an employee of the Workshop had been found having brought beer onto the premises. Hemphill ordered a reprimand and considered the matter resolved. No alcohol had been consumed in the incident.
The complainants exchanged stories about various incidents, sometimes with significant differences in recollections between their accounts and Plummer's. Some of the complaints involved matters that occurred more than a year ago with people no longer at the Workshop.
Plummer in turn produced a list of guidelines she had provided for the assisted employment workers. She explained some of the rules had been instituted to keep handicapped clients focused on their work.
There had been incidents where support workers had moved their client to a different job for their own reasons, rather than staying on a task assigned by the Workshop staff. Changing jobs was a decision for the Workshop staff alone, Plummer said. She also had problems with group gatherings that lasted for extended periods, getting clients away from their jobs.
"This is a business," Plummer said. "It should be run like a business per the State of Missouri's guidelines."
The support staff argued that handicapped workers must be treated with more discretion than in other businesses. Plummer agreed.
Plummer voiced her reservations about having supported employment workers on the grounds. She said the field representative from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that oversees sheltered workshops said few workshops allow supported employment workers and recommended discontinuing the practice.
The support workers said they believed Plummer wanted to get rid of them and felt reluctant to bring concerns to her for fear of retaliation.
"I would have had solutions if I had known about it," Plummer said. "There are no employees targeted for dismissal. If I'm not comfortable with a person or with your client, I'm going to say something. I will talk to the parent. I'm not allowed to talk to you."
Board member Jerry White finally interrupted the exchanges and asked for the board to have time to sort through the issues raised and respond accordingly.
"Give us a chance as a board to work with Mica and work this out," said board member Mike Himebaugh.
Hemphill agreed to hold regular staff meetings, something the Workshop has not had for years, to help air out issues. He also said the board would do a better job of posting notices of its meetings. Board members were open to holding sessions at times other than the noon hour if a change would help parents.
"I'm going into a full investigation on these issues to get an answer," Plummer told The Times yesterday.