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Invictus Bakery Shows Us What an Inclusive Workplace Can Look Like
July 29, 2023

Invictus Bakery Shows Us What an Inclusive Workplace Can Look Like

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The Future of Work Involves a Group of People Who Have Long Been Overlooked, From music to color-coded measuring cups, the environment plays to the strengths of people with intellectual disabilities., It’s legal to pay people with disabilities less than mi

The frames around the large windows of Invictus Bakery in Brooklyn remind me of saccharine pink frosting. When I arrive on a rainy Friday morning, the smell of chocolate greets me at the door. The bakers arrange a pop-up store outside when the weather cooperates, but today neighbors with their dogs peek their heads in to buy a few dog treats, or a dozen cookies.

Inside is a massive kitchen. Large stainless-steel counters are lined up in a row, each one commanded by a baker diligently at work. Pop music plays at a high volume from the speakers in the corner. Emma Davis, who is in her early twenties and wears her hair pulled back in braids, sings while she mixes food coloring into cake batter. Her older sister, Noa, who designs most of the labels and signs for the bakery, works at the table behind her, making brownies.

Invictus Bakery seems like a familiar kind of business that caters to the bougie, vegan-ish residents of Park Slope. Yet it also offers a promising model of employment that values the strengths of bakers with autism and other intellectual disabilities.

Before coming to Invictus, Emma and Noa Davis, and many of the other bakers, struggled to find meaningful work in an inclusive environment. Only 18 percent of Americans with intellectual disabilities—like the Davises—were employed in 2022. Many of them were paid much less than their neurotypical counterparts.

This is legal: When the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established the minimum wage, it carved out an exception. Businesses that hold a 14(c) certificate can pay employees with disabilities less than minimum wage. In June 2023, 920 14(c) certificates either had been issued or were pending approval by the Department of Labor, permitting about 70,000 people with disabilities to be paid less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. On average, folks hired under 14(c) certificates make half that.

For most of the 20th century, sheltered workshops (the term used by the Department of Labor to refer to businesses that hold 14(c) certificates) flourished as a way of keeping people with intellectual disabilities out of institutions but isolated from mainstream life, ostensibly for their own protection and shelter. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 asserted that disability is a natural part of the human experience that does not diminish a person’s right to all aspects of life, including work for equal pay. Still, the 14(c) certificates have stuck around.

Federal regulations presume that the disabled employees in sheltered workshops will be less productive, and allow their wages to be set accordingly. ‘The commensurate wage of a worker with a disability who is 75% as productive as the average experienced nondisabled worker, taking into consideration the type, quality, and quantity of work of the disabled worker, would be set at 75% of the wage paid to the nondisabled worker,’ the FLSA states. The law also suggests that time trials might be used to determine the productivity of an individual with a disability.

The Department of Labor describes sheltered workshops as places of training that should be focused on teaching a particular skill and then supporting people to find work in their communities that pays at least minimum wage. Yet some people work in them their entire lives, even though a government rule requires businesses to provide information about alternative work possibilities or be forced to pay the full minimum wage. In 2022, the Department of Labor filed a suit against the Special K Ranch in Columbus, Montana, claiming that the employer had not provided its employees the required job counseling and referrals. Special K Ranch paid its workers as little as $1.17 an hour.

Luckily, the rules are changing. Eighteen states have already passed laws to phase out 14(c) certificates. In February Congress introduced the Transformation to Competitive Integrated Employment Act (S.533), which would end the 85-year-old practice of paying people with disabilities less than minimum wage.

Invictus Bakery was founded in 2018 to prepare people with intellectual disabilities to be part of an inclusive workforce as the legal landscape opens up more work for them. The bakery’s first product was the ‘No Bones About It’ dog treat, which it sold to individuals and in bulk to nearby pet stores. Soon Invictus expanded to human treats—cookies, brownies, and cakes—and bulk orders from other businesses came in as soon as the bakery had a product to sell. But to many potential customers, the idea of bakers with autism seemed far-fetched. ‘We needed to show businesses how precise and skilled our bakers were,’ Molly Sebastian, one of the founders, tells me. A former television producer, she’s the mom of Ava, who lacks spoken language and is now employed at Invictus. Along with co-founder Alison Berkley, who has a background in special education, she opened a storefront in Brooklyn, and found regular business partners who committed to ordering from the bakery on a regular basis. Now Bain & Company and Morgan Stanley are among their biggest clients.

‘The bakery shows that there are alternatives to the sheltered workshop model,’ Sebastian explains to me during my visit.

At Invictus, people with intellectual disabilities, who often need help communicating and organizing tasks, are trained by professional pastry chefs in classes and workshops. (These are fully integrated into the community—anyone who wants to learn how to bake can join.) Bakers can become certified as professionally trained in a particular product, a process that usually takes nine months to a year. Once they are certified, bakers can be hired by Invictus to fill orders, earning at least minimum wage. Invictus currently works with about 50 bakers, and the waiting list for its training classes is growing.

As a workplace, Invictus Bakery is set up to value different cognitive styles. Over the beat of Nicki Minaj, Berkley explains to me that the music elevates the energy of the space, and takes the edge off back-and-forth conversation. And since most of the employees work best with visual instructions that they can absorb at their own pace, each baker works with a tablet that provides step-by-step directions for all of Invictus’ licensed recipes.

Berkley has also made subtle modifications to the kitchen so that it’s more accessible. ‘At one point I realized that the etched labels on measuring cups and spoons were really hard to see,’ she tells me. So she developed a color-coding system. The handles of measuring tools are wrapped in colored tape, which corresponds with the instructions in the recipes on the tablets. These modifications exemplify an adaptive approach to work that opposes the deficit-based way in which people with intellectual disabilities are usually assessed and evaluated. Rather than focusing on what they are unable to do, the bakery adapts to its employees’ particular needs and strengths.

Justin Muniz has been working at Invictus for five years. He usually takes the subway to Brooklyn from his neighborhood in Queens. When I visit the bakery, Muniz is wearing a Nirvana T-shirt and quietly goes about mixing, measuring, and methodically scrolling through the directions on the tablet on the counter. He crosses off tasks on a checklist as he works: four batches of chocolate cake, one batch of vanilla frosting divided and dyed in rainbow colors (it’s Pride weekend), and one batch of vegan chocolate chip cookies.

‘I like baking and I like the people,’ he tells me. Muniz has become one of Invictus’ best bakers, and Sebastian often recruits him for public outreach. They travel to office buildings to teach potential clients about the bakery, handing out samples and taking orders for future deliveries.

Legal statutes still limit how many hours people with disabilities can work at Invictus. Most of the bakery’s employees can work only part time if they want to keep their Medicaid and Social Security benefits. Most students pay for the certification training through New York’s Self-Direction program for people with disabilities, and the waiting lists and red tape can be daunting. Sebastian told me that they have had job seekers enthusiastically sign up for the training classes only to be denied the financial support from Medicaid to take the class. Bureaucratic setbacks and a lack of government support can be devastating. The end of the 14(c) certificates, and a requirement to pay disabled workers minimum wage, would only go so far to help.

The transition from sheltered workshops to competitive integrated employment requires more than just giving a person a job. It demands a fundamental reconsideration of how work environments can better support all kinds of employees. To create meaningful employment, more businesses will need to challenge entrenched stereotypes about the proficiency and capability of people with intellectual disabilities. But it can be done. And, hopefully, watching the bakers at Invictus go about their work is a glimpse into the future.


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