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 little-known 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.
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“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.”
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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.
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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.
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.”