Tags: AbilityOne | disabled | blind | procurement | GSA

Change in Fed Buying Program Sends Jobs for Disabled Abroad

By    |   Friday, 10 October 2014 11:00 AM

A change made to federal procurement rules in an effort to increase efficiency and lower costs has resulted in the loss of hundreds of jobs for the disabled, reports The Washington Times.

With a reduction of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Defense Department re-evaluated how it purchases products, including from businesses that have been awarded contracts through the AbilityOne program.

Initially known as the Wagner-O'Day Act, AbilityOne is a federal program that started as an initiative to increase employment for the blind. It was expanded in 1971 as the Javits-Wagner-O'Day Act to include individuals with other disabilities.

AbilityOne, which encourages the government to use its buying power to procure select products and services from nonprofit agencies that hire the blind and disabled, currently employs about 47,000 people, compared with 7,500 in 1980. As many as 500 nonprofit organizations employ these individuals, according to its website.

Critics tell The Times that the change — and a lack of proper compliance oversight — has resulted in the loss of American jobs to the benefit of local companies in Central Asia.

"The fact is, the people feeling the impact are the most underemployed people in our country," said Renee Vidrine, president of Louisiana's Lighthouse for the Blind.

Lighthouse is one of the nonprofit organizations that has benefited from the AbilityOne contracts and, according to Vidrine, has lost almost $14 million in revenue as military orders declined.

Vidrine also shared her concerns that a lack of transparency over Central Asian suppliers places taxpayer dollars at risk.

Responding to those concerns, Jackeline Stewart, a spokeswoman for the General Services Agency (GSA), told the Times it is continuing to work with AbilityOne to "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.

Vidrine is not the only one who has questions about how the administration is complying with the Javits-Wagner-O'Day Act.

On Sept. 12, a group of more than 50 members of Congress wrote a letter to the GSA with a list of questions about the agency's compliance standards.

Specifically, the bipartisan group of legislators asked how GSA manages noncompliant contractors, and "what specific policies will GSA follow to ensure that commercial contractors comply with the mandatory requirements" of the AbilityOne program.

GSA responded by posting a blog by Bill Sisk, deputy commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service, which is administered by the GSA, reports Federal News Radio.

"The future of GSA's Supply Transformation efforts shifts us to a model that will result in a more efficient supply chain, faster delivery times, and better prices for our agency customers," Sisk wrote.

According to Federal News Radio, in fiscal 2013, GSA's Global Supply sold more than $228 million worth of AbilityOne products, representing 22 percent of its business. Through August 2014, GSA said AbilityOne has $191 million, or 31 percent, of its business.

In June, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York called on the GSA to ensure that efforts to increase efficiency and savings did not result in private companies benefiting to the detriment of AbilityOne nonprofits.

"While I understand it is important to make government more efficient and cut costs, I am equally concerned that some of these recent changes in the way GSA does business could cause sixty-five blind and visually impaired Southern Tier residents to lose their jobs.

"That is unacceptable and it is why I am urging the feds to take a good, hard look at the new distribution practices they are putting in place and make sure they are complying with the law, because jobs like these hang in the balance," wrote the Democratic senator.

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A change made to federal procurement rules in an effort to increase efficiency and lower costs has resulted in the loss of hundreds of jobs for the disabled.
AbilityOne, disabled, blind, procurement, GSA
Friday, 10 October 2014 11:00 AM
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