Feds di­vert jobs for dis­abled Americans to Asia

New pro­cure­ment rules for mil­i­tary shrouded in se­crecy

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY JIM MCELHATTON AND QUIN HIL­LYER

NEW OR­LEANS | Sibyl Mikell has worked in the same New Or­leans ware­house by the Mis­sis­sippi River docks since 1980, one of dozens of blind work­ers who make the mess trays sent to U.S. mil­i­tary forces over­seas — in­clud­ing her own son, who fin­ished his sec­ond tour of duty in Afghanistan ear­lier this year.

This op­er­a­tion is an in­te­gral part of Abil­i­tyOne, a pro­gram that awards gov­ern­ment con­tracts to non­prof­its that em­ploy blind and dis­abled peo­ple to pro­duce ba­sic prod­ucts for the mil­i­tary. But Ms. Mikell and 42 co­work­ers were re­cently and abruptly laid off from their jobs at Light­house for the Blind in New Or­leans be­cause of a lit­tle­known change in fed­eral pro­cure­ment rules that en­cour­ages mil­i­tary forces in Afghanistan to buy from man­u­fac­tur­ers and bro­kers in Cen­tral Asia.

The change was in­tended to pro­vide a lift to al­lies’ de­pressed economies, but crit­ics cite a lack of trans­parency and say the new pro­cure­ment ini­tia­tive is cost­ing Amer­i­can jobs.

“The fact is, the peo­ple feel­ing the im­pact are the most un­der­em­ployed peo­ple in our coun­try,” said Re­nee Vidrine, pres­i­dent of Light­house for the Blind, who said the changes break both the in­tent and the let­ter of the law.

Her or­ga­ni­za­tion has lost at least $14 mil­lion in rev­enue as mil­i­tary or­ders for mess trays went else­where, she said.

Other or­ga­ni­za­tions for the blind and dis­abled have also been hit hard, and Abil­i­tyOne of­fi­cials have pri­vately regis­tered their con­cerns with the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“They want to work,” said Erin McQuade Wright, vice pres­i­dent for de­vel­op­ment at Light­house. “That’s the heart of our mis­sion. We don’t want to rely on hand­outs or phi­lan­thropy for all our support; we want to be able to gen­er­ate our own rev­enue to help support our pro­grams, but we can’t do that if the law is not be­ing fol­lowed.

The De­fense Depart­ment changed its guide­lines last year to en­cour­age some mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions to use lo­cal sup­pli­ers. Fol­low­ing the new rules, the Gen­eral Ser­vices Ad­min­is­tra­tion (GSA) cre­ated a cat­a­log of prod­ucts that Afghan and other coun­tries’ man­u­fac­tur­ers would be able to make for U.S. mil­i­tary forces there.

But many of those items his­tor­i­cally had been bought from Abil­i­tyOne non­prof­its, in­clud­ing the mess trays that are Light­house’s big­gest seller. Of­fi­cials at Light­house say they un­der­stand the rea­son be­hind the ini­tia­tive but take is­sue with how GSA has im­ple­mented the pro­gram, say­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions for the blind and dis­abled have been hit dis­pro­por­tion­ately.

The new rules have steered tens of mil­lions of dol­lars away from U.S. or­ga­ni­za­tions to com­pa­nies in the Cen­tral Asian re­gion. Who those com­pa­nies are, how­ever, re­mains shrouded.

Jay Scog­gin, a vice pres­i­dent of pro­gram support for TWI, the pri­vate company now over­see­ing the Cen­tral Asian States Pro­cure­ment Ini­tia­tive, de­clined to pro­vide a list of com­pa­nies pro­vid­ing prod­ucts in the re­gion, but said they have a thor­ough vet­ting process for those they choose.

He said in a phone in­ter­view that he un­der­stands the frus­tra­tions of Abil­i­tyOne or­ga­ni­za­tions, but said the de­ci­sions are “re­ally a GSA is­sue.”

Jack­e­line Ste­wart, a GSA spokes­woman, said the agency is work­ing to help Abil­i­tyOne and its sup­plier base “iden­tify and pur­sue un­tapped mar­kets.”

“GSA is strongly com­mit­ted to main­tain­ing its part­ner­ship with Abil­i­tyOne with­out com­pro­mis­ing support for the Depart­ment of De­fense’s mis­sion,” she said.

Se­crecy and tax dol­lars

Mean­while the Abil­i­tyOne Com­mis­sion is torn. Com­mis­sion spokesman George Selby told The Wash­ing­ton Times they support the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­ci­sions, in­clud­ing the new De­fense Depart­ment di­rec­tive that has sent business over­seas, “which has been de­ter­mined to be in our na­tional in­ter­est.”

“That said, the com­mis­sion is sen­si­tive to the im­pact the ini­tia­tive is hav­ing on some lo­cal non­profit agen­cies and their em­ploy­ees, and is work­ing to mit­i­gate that sit­u­a­tion to the ex­tent pos­si­ble,” Mr. Selby said.

Mr. Scog­gin said he un­der­stands the frus­tra­tion of Abil­i­tyOne af­fil­i­ates and that no­body wants to see rev­enue drop at the non­prof­its sup­ply­ing prod­ucts, but said business was go­ing to de­cline any­way with the draw­down of troops. “It’s the na­ture of th­ese op­er­a­tions,” he said. “The con­tract was specif­i­cally for lo­cal sources in Cen­tral Asia,” he said. “And that’s what TWI’s re­quire­ments were un­der the con­tract, so that’s what we did.”

The company is­sued a press re­lease in May say­ing its lo­gis­tics hub in Kaza­khstan had saved more than $10 mil­lion in trans­porta­tion costs.

But Ms. Vidrine said those sav­ings are due to the U.S. mil­i­tary se­cur­ing dis­tri­bu­tion routes, mak­ing shipping more af­ford­able.

She said the lack of trans­parency over which Cen­tral Asian sup­pli­ers are get­ting Amer­i­can tax­pay­ers’ money is trou­bling. The GSA, in re­ply to an open records re­quest from Light­house of­fi­cials, said it doesn’t re­quire the company now over­see­ing the pro­cure­ment ini­tia­tive to au­dit sup­pli­ers or sup­plies in the re­gion.

In an email, she ques­tioned why GSA would al­low for tax­payer dol­lars to be “wrapped up in a large in­ter­na­tional pur­chas­ing pro­gram with­out mon­i­tor­ing com­pli­ance … and in­stead trust an in­ter­na­tional company to self-mon­i­tor their com­pli­ance?” she said.

Ms. Vidrine also said the new pro­cure­ment rules set a bad prece­dent for fu­ture wars.

“Should we be in­volved in another con­flict over there, they could eas­ily do this again un­less we find a way to stop the prece­dent from be­ing set,” she said.

Some law­mak­ers on Capi­tol Hill have taken an in­ter­est in the im­pact of the gov­ern­ment’s pro­cure­ment poli­cies on Abil­i­tyOne af­fil­i­ates.

Ear­lier this month Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Demo­crat, sent a let­ter to GSA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Dan Tangher­lini ques­tion­ing him over the agency’s “changes in sup­ply dis­tri­bu­tion” af­fect­ing dozens of jobs held by blind res­i­dents in Rochester.

Mr. Schumer said he was con­cerned about a sep­a­rate plan to turn dis­tri­bu­tion over to pri­vate com­pa­nies like Sta­ples, a move that he said would leave dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ters shut­tered.

“The con­se­quence will be hun­dreds of lay­offs and fur­loughs for per­sons who are blind or se­verely dis­abled,” he wrote.

Frus­tra­tion mounts

Back at Light­house, pro­duc­tion has been cut from the round-the-clock sched­ule of four or five years ago, when U.S. forces were in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now Ms. Mikell and co-work­ers Nor­man De­molle and Ron Fra­zier, all blind, work part-time on an “as-needed” ba­sis.

Frus­tra­tion is mount­ing with the drop in work, which con­sists of both man­u­fac­tur­ing and pack­ag­ing.

Pa­per tow­els are man­u­fac­tured at the plant. The pa­per ar­rives in huge rolls or spools and is ma­chined into what the work­ers call “logs,” which the work­ers, at a con­veyor belt, sort, wrap and pack­age to mil­i­tary spec­i­fi­ca­tions — five packs per log. They do this all by feel, with just a few “sighted” em­ploy­ees there for as­sis­tance.

“When you work, it gives you a whole bet­ter at­ti­tude,” Mr. De­molle said. “There are peo­ple who have noth­ing wrong with them who won’t get out and work, but here I have a dis­abil­ity, but I want to work. When you are work­ing, it makes you feel bet­ter about your­self. I don’t want to de­pend on the gov­ern­ment for the rest of my life.”

That was the in­tent of the Abil­i­tyOne pro­gram, which claims its roots in the 1938 Wag­ner-O’Day Act, which re­quired the gov­ern­ment to buy spe­cific prod­ucts such as mops and brooms from non­prof­its who em­ployed blind work­ers. In 1968 the law was ex­panded to in­clude peo­ple with sig­nif­i­cant dis­abil­i­ties, and ex­panded pur­chases to in­clude ser­vices as well as prod­ucts — with the hope that work­ers trained un­der the pro­gram might even be able to take com­pet­i­tive jobs out­side of it.

More than 600 or­ga­ni­za­tions like Light­house are now part of the pro­gram and have pref­er­ence on gov­ern­ment or­ders for cer­tain prod­ucts, though they have to meet qual­ity spec­i­fi­ca­tions and be sold at fair mar­ket prices.

“I love my job. I love the fact that I can com­pete, that I can leave my house and go to work like any­one else,” said Ms. Mikell. “It pro­vides an in­come for my fam­ily. I’ve raised four chil­dren since I’ve been here. But not hav­ing a job, well, I didn’t know what to do, where to go next.”

MARY LOU UTTERMOHLEN /SPE­CIAL TO THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

Nor­man De­molle, who is blind, works oc­ca­sion­ally for his company on an as-needed ba­sis, but steady work has evap­o­rated as or­ders go else­where, par­tic­u­larly over­seas. A change in fed­eral pro­cure­ment rules that en­cour­ages mil­i­tary forces in Afghanistan to buy from man­u­fac­tur­ers and bro­kers in Cen­tral Asia.

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