HAMPTON -- Tyrell Mullen was ready for a fresh start when he joined the Work Adjustment Training Program at Wright Choices Inc. in Hampton.
Wright Choices is a leading provider of vocational services for the disabled with about 500 clientele.
Cerebral palsy allows Mullen limited use of his right arm and he says he also has a seizure disorder and arthritis, but none of that affects his willingness to work.
"I just want to go into a job where I am getting paid and I feel comfortable doing," says Mullen.
Picking up parking lot trash and not getting paid for it was not the type of job 25-year-old Mullen was hoping for, but after joining the Work Adjustment Program that's part of his job a couple days a week along with other manual labor.
"We went to concession stands and picked up peanut shells, cigarette butts, beer bottles and things like that," said Mullen.
The situation caught the attention of Mullen's aunt, Felicia Bracey, who started asking questions. She wanted to know how the employees were benefiting.
Bracey also felt that Mullen's previous work experience with Hampton and Newport News Parks and Recreation Departments made him overqualified for the work he was doing.
"To me, he's really not benefiting. So if you're training him, to me it seems like you would know your clientele," Bracey said.
Wright Choices President and CEO Lance Wright says the one to three month Work Adjustment Training Program has numerous benefits. It helps participants understand punctuality, learn grooming, interview, communication and time management skills, among other things. He says the people in the program represent only about five percent of the overall clientele.
“The work adjustment part of our program was designed just for training, to help somebody on a very short-term basis, to prepare to work in the community," says Wright.
The participants come from referrals from the State Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services. The state pays Wright Choices $52 a day for each trainee.
13 News Now’s inquiries to the state about the program prompted officials to take a closer look at the vendor agreement it has with Wright Choices and they "reemphasized" in the new agreement that all work adjustment training must be paid.
Director of Division of Rehabilitative Services Kathy Hayfield says it is industry standard for participants in work adjustment programs to be paid and she feels Wright Choices was an isolated case.
The new vendor agreement took affect July 1 of this year.
"People in work adjustment training should be paid for the work they do because that's how they determine if a person is developing good work skills and behaviors," says Hayfield.
Wright says he simply was not aware that the regulations had changed and says he's made immediate adjustments to pay the trainees. He notes at no time did his company make a profit off the trainees.
"Wright Choice has not gained any financial advantage for any community-based training activities provided by individuals in the WAT program. Taking advantage of persons with disabilities is contrary to every belief and philosophy that Wright Choices espouses," Wright said.
Wright says most of the participants in other programs like Individual Placement Supported Employment and Group Supported Employment are paid. He says Wright Choice is one of the few organizations in the state that pays minimum wage instead of sub-minimum wage.
Wright said he’ll have to temporarily halt the Work Adjustment Training Program beginning September 1, until he can secure new contracts from employers willing to pay extra money in order to pay the trainees minimum wage.