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Bark’s Bytes #19 | A Real Job


In July 2012 someone in our field was quoted in the local paper saying that the work clients at Merrick do and get paid for is “like an activity with an allowance” and “I don’t consider that work”. This person is also a constant voice within the Minnesota Employment Policy Initiative (MEPI). Visiting the MEPI website ( you can find their January 2012 policy statement that “Employment First is the vision of making integrated competitive employment (with or without supports) the first priority and preferred outcome of Minnesotans with disabilities”. In MEPI’s 2011 report “Policy Brief on Employment of Minnesotans With Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities”, they define competitive employment as “work in fully integrated settings, with or without supports, at prevailing wages.” From these two statements I understand MEPI to assert that a job must be both fully integrated and paid at a prevailing wage to be “real”.

Let’s examine their first assertion that a job must be fully integrated to be “real”. Not only do I struggle with their undefined use of the phrase “fully integrated” (see, I am perplexed by the notion that where one works can make a job any more or less real. What of an Internet entrepreneur working from a home office or a professional golfer that earns their money on 18 beautifully landscaped holes? As Jim Chicone said in his 9/20/12 Thoughts on Thursday’s Facebook post “While individuals, groups, and society at-large can place a higher value on some features of a job over other features, a job is a job; it is what it is”.

Their second assertion that to be “real” a job has to be paid at a prevailing wage is even less true than their first assertion. What of an artist that may work months or years on a sculpture only to sell it for a few hundred dollars? Or a real estate agent that works on a full commission? While what one gets paid certainly influences what one can buy, if a person performs an activity for any amount of compensation don’t they have the right to call it a real job?

Consider Luke Haley ( who takes an art class three times a week and volunteers at Trinity Lutheran Church, Feed My Starving Children, and Good Samaritan Nursing Home. In the article his mom reflects on the unique value he brings to the world when she says “It’s not easy to show that kind of generosity to your fellow humankind, but he does it boldly, and he does it with passion, and he never gets discouraged. He’s been such a teacher for me.” From the article the reader certainly gets the impression that the organizations that Luke interacts with count on him to greet visitors, package food, and deliver the mail – tasks that need to be done. Why does MEPI consider the wage the only factor in valuing the work being done and ignore Luke’s satisfaction and the gratitude of those he serves.

At Merrick we have narrowed our definition of meaningful work as having the following four criteria:
• a preferred task;
• in a setting of choice;
• with dependable hours; and
• for a satisfactory wage.

The beauty of this definition is that every client gets to define each of those four criteria for themselves and proudly call it their real job. It even works for Luke. What the people at MEPI fail to acknowledge is that, while a job can certainly enhance one’s life, it does not define it like choice. If government, providers, and advocates can work together to meet the four criteria above for citizens with disabilities we can stop wasting our energy on irrelevant employment policy and legislation. Finally, for the people at MEPI, what makes your job so “real”? If it is just pay and spending 40 hours in your definition of an integrated workplace – you might be missing the bigger picture and need to have a conversation with Luke.