Man shares sister’s experience working at Self Help Enterprises

STERLING, Illinois -- Lynn Hammer has fond memories of his sister's time at Self Help Enterprises.

It was back in the 1970s when his parents discovered the Sterling nonprofit.  Self Help is a recycling, packaging and pallet manufacturer that has been around for decades, offering employment to people with disabilities.

Lynn's sister Karen was about 21 when she left her parents' farm near Galena and joined the Self Help community in Sterling, moving into a group home.  Lynn was already living in Sterling with his wife, so on top of a job and community, her involvement with Self Help meant he got to see Karen more often.

"I took her out, we'd go out to Kmart and shop and go to McDonald's," he recalled.

And he said at Self Help his sister Karen found a sense of accomplishment.

"She did numerous things but the thing she was the proudest of was putting together those turnbuckles," he said.

Self Help used to be legally allowed to pay its workers less than minimum wage, basing pay on productivity.  But Lynn said that for his sister, the time spent at Self Help was never about the pay.

"I had no idea how much money she made an hour, a year.  And my parents, honestly they (didn't care), it was such a great outlet for her," he said.  Karen passed away in 1996, but Lynn's care for the Self Help community continued.

So in late April 2018, when the U.S. Department of Labor said the Self Help was found in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, Hammer said he was shocked.

"The first thought was I can't believe it," he said.

In a statement, the Department of Labor said the nonprofit company had improperly paid nearly 250 workers.  It was revealed that the company didn't meet deadline requirements when calculating pay rates and improperly figured how much time workers spent completing tasks.  In addition, the statement said on some weekends, workers were compensated with gift cards.

Now, the nonprofit is forced to pay all workers at least the federal minimum wage and they have to back pay wages from the last two years.

Seeing the situation from a distance, Lynn's concern is that Self Help won't be able to sustain.   He said if the nonprofit had to close or cut back on the services it provides that it would have a negative impact on the community.

"I think it'd be horrible for the community and definitely horrible for families who have people living and working there," he said.

In response to the labor department's investigation, the Executive Director of Self Help Enterprises, Carla Haubrich, issued the following statement:

"Self Help has been a productive agency serving the developmentally disabled workforce for 54 years. We are proud of the services that we offer and the community, family, that we have created for our workforce. We are obviously disappointed in the decision made by the United States Department of Labor, disagreeing with this outcome, but will take all necessary steps to comply with the decision as we pursue our available options to have the matter duly reviewed. At this point, however, until we can meet with the full Board of Directors, with our attorneys and wage consultant, I will have no further comment."