Mark Switt, 33, pushed up his glasses, placed the hinge of a fence gate he had just assembled back on his workbench and gestured around the 20,000-square-foot production area of New Horizons in Sepulveda.
"I love working here," said Switt, one of 225 developmentally disabled adults employed full time at the sheltered workshop, a production facility run by a nonprofit organization. "It's not boring, and I'm happy."
Outside the workshop, 25-year-old Kathy Nordberg maneuvered her wheelchair to a spot near the picnic tables to enjoy a bit of winter sunshine during her break. "I enjoy coming here because it means I don't have to stay home, be bored and look at four walls," she said. "If I stayed home, I'd probably watch TV all day long."
New Horizons is one of a handful of sheltered workshops in the San Fernando Valley. The workshops secure contract work from industry in order to offer employment to workers like Switt and Nordberg, whose disabilities prohibit easy access to employment or rule out jobs in a conventional setting.
The protective, closely supervised workshop environment provides employees with more than a chance to earn paychecks. For many, their sheltered workshop jobs afford an opportunity to escape an otherwise monotonous daily routine and a chance to feel like valued members of society.
"Getting them to stop working at the end of the day is sometimes difficult," said Pam Schaefer, senior rehabilitation counselor at New Horizons. "They take their jobs seriously. And if we have a rush project, they really rally around."
Clients, as most of the workshops prefer to call their employees, excel at performing repetitive jobs--jobs that workers in industry may balk at doing: Hand packaging, collating, sorting and mechanical assembly are common tasks at sheltered workshops.
At New Horizons, assembling at-home heart monitor kits is an ongoing project.
On a recent morning at Build Rehabilitation Industries in North Hollywood, 110 clients kept busy sorting and packaging false fingernails, among other projects.
At Nova Opportunity Center of Burbank Inc., many of the 44 clients spent a recent morning shrink-wrapping hundreds of boxes of toys.
At Rancho del Valle Workshop of the Crippled Children's Society of Southern California Inc., in Woodland Hills, collating of printed materials is a frequent task for the 50 clients.
"Some clients set production goals for themselves--over and above what we set for them," Schaefer said. She recalled one woman, in printing lot numbers on vitamin packages, who began by completing 1,000 packages a day and worked her way up to 2,000 a day within the workweek.
Prospective clients are tested to evaluate their motor skills, ability to follow directions and other capabilities. Individual goals are established and rehabilitation counselors follow them closely to assess progress. Some workshops also conduct on-the-job training.
"We teach clients socialization skills, for example, and how to focus their attention on tasks," explained Jeff Teller, a senior rehabilitation counselor at Build Rehabilitation Industries.
All clients are paid for their work, either by the piece or by the hour. Pay varies widely, depending on the job and the client's productivity, and augments other sources of income, such as government aid.
At Build, for example, clients receive about $1.46 an hour, said Larry Miller, executive director. "But there are clients who make much more," he said.
Payday at sheltered workshops is as exciting as at any other job, and perhaps more so. The excitement boils down to a simple fact, said Vera Switt, president of New Horizon's auxiliary and parents' group: "They earned it. It wasn't given to them."
The benefits of sheltered workshops aren't one-sided, however, as hundreds of San Fernando Valley businesses have discovered. For them, the rewards of linking up with sheltered workshops can be philanthropic as well as economic.
"The image of a business is enhanced if it provides work for the handicapped," said Art Grant, executive director of Nova Opportunity Center.
Contracting with sheltered workshops can also reduce the need to hire seasonal help, eliminate overtime for regular employees and trim overall fringe-benefit costs.
"There is a fixed per-unit cost here," said Howard S. Taylor, production planner at New Horizons. "Companies don't have the extra investment of equipment, in some cases, and they don't have to think about overhead costs or worry about extra insurance costs."
For some businesses, these benefits persuade management to turn over much of their work to sheltered workshops. One company farms out half its packaging business to Nova. At Build, a single company sometimes provides income up to $15,000 a month.