Scott Walker
Gov. Scott Walker

The Fort Atkinson temporary services company praised by Gov. Scott Walker this week has seen its profits swell to $2.8 million annually, while paying its disabled workers less than minimum wage.

Opportunities Inc. of Jefferson County has been cheered by the governor for creating opportunities for developmentally disabled individuals and helping to create jobs for other needy workers.

But records filed with the state Department of Workforce Development show that 92 percent of the roughly 450 disabled workers employed by Opportunities Inc. were paid less than $5 an hour and 50 percent made less than $2 an hour. In some cases workers were paid as little as 11 cents an hour based on a piece-work scale.

(A 1938 federal law allows disabled individuals to be paid less than minimum wage. It was part of New Deal legislation designed to spur hiring of injured military veterans.)

At the same time, Opportunities Inc. President Barbara LeDuc received $198,795 in total compensation in 2009, according to the company's filing with the Internal Revenue Service. Vice President Sheryl Labonne was paid $140,326.

Opportunities Inc has a budget of $12.2 million but $9.2 million is public funding, according to its 2009 tax filing, the most recent figures available. The firm operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, making it exempt from most state, local and federal taxes.

Opportunities Inc. also has a fast-growing division that hires able-bodied employees, most at the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. It recently opened a facility on Madison's south side and just made a $6 million expansion to its Fort Atkinson operations that drew the governor's attention.

"It is deeply disturbing that at a time when there is such a desperate need for family-sustaining jobs that Scott Walker celebrates a government-funded employer that profits from minimum and sub-minimum wage jobs," says Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, in a statement.

Biz Beat reported this week on complaints from a 66-year-old Vietnam War veteran working in the company's Diversified Personel Services division, who talked about low wages, no benefits and tough working conditions. That division provides packaging, printing and other services for 150 companies, including Quad Graphics and Trek Bicycle.

Advocates for the disabled say Opportunities Inc. is opposing changes to the way disabled individuals are employed. There is a current movement to end the traditional "sheltered workshop" model and help workers gain real jobs in the community.

Concerns that sheltered workshops discourage disabled individuals from entering the real workforce were detailed in a January report from the National Disability Rights Network. That report opens with an example from the Quad Cities in Iowa where developmentally disabled men working at Henry's Turkey Service were housed in an unheated bunkhouse that was eventually shuttered by inspectors following a series of TV stories.

Officials with Opportunities Inc. declined to comment for this report but earlier defended their low wage/no benefit structure, saying the jobs they offer non-disabled workers are designed to be temporary, not permanent positions. A video of the company's operations is available here.

But Robert Heussner of Fort Atkinson, whose letter to the Daily Jefferson County Union sparked the initial coverage of Opportunities Inc. and Walker's scheduled appearance there this week, said many workers have no other options. He recounted tales of employees driving to Fort Atkinson from Beloit or Janesville, only to be sent home some days because there was no work available.

It's unclear how many workers are employed at Opportunities Inc. and what percentage of those are disabled. The company has about 100 of its own staff and says it issued paychecks to 2,800 individuals last year, according an earlier interview with spokeswoman Robin Kennedy.

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By most economic measures Opportunities Inc. has been quite successful. Public records show the company maintains an investment portfolio of $4.8 million. And despite the economic downturn, top staffers LeDuc and Labonne have both enjoyed 23 percent pay increases since 2007, according to the IRS filings.

Those pay increases were approved by the Opportunities Inc. Board of Directors, whose vice chairman is Bruce Loeb, president of Loeb Industries, a scrap metal recycling firm in Watertown. Loeb donated $3,775 to Walker in the last election, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Jodi Hanna, supervising attorney for Disability Rights Wisconsin, a nonprofit designated by the governor to ensure the rights of all state citizens with disabilities, doesn't doubt Opportunities Inc. is trying to help those in need. At the same time, however, she wonders if the firm has lost focus in pursuit of growth and higher profits.

"If they made $2.8 million last year perhaps they should look at whether they should pay their people more," she says.

Some 70 different organizations provide job services for disabled individuals in Wisconsin. But Opportunities Inc. is somewhat unique for also maintaining a division for workers with other "life challenges" such as legal problems, language barriers and alcohol or drug issues.

The outsourcing of jobs to rural areas is also an increasing trend as companies seek to lower production costs. Those issues are laid out in a column here.