VISUALLY IMPAIRED SOUTHERN TIER RESIDENTS, OF WHICH 60% ARE LEGALLY BLIND, WHO MAKE PAPER GOODS AND OTHER MATERIALS FOR FED. GOVERNMENT FEDS MUST COMPLY WITH 1971 LAW REQUIRING CERTAIN SUPPLIES BE PURCHASED FROM NON-PROFITS EMPLOYING THE BLIND
As Result of 1971 Law Authored By Former NY Senator Jacob Javits, Fed. Gov. Agencies Are Required To Purchase Certain Supplies From Nonprofit Agencies Employing Persons Who Are Blind Like Binghamton Association for Visual Rehabilitation and Employment, Inc. But Recent Changes In Supply Distribution Has Cut Work Flow, Put Jobs At Risk Binghamton AVRE Has Lost Over $1 Million In Sales As Result of Fed. Gov. Changes Schumer Pushes Administration To Require All Cabinet Secretaries
Today, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer launched his push to save the jobs of 65 visually impaired employees who make paper goods and other supplies for federal government agencies at the Binghamton Association for Visual Rehabilitation and Employment, Inc. (AVRE). Sixty percent of these employees are legally blind. Schumer explained that, as a result of a 1971 law authored by former New York Senator Jacob Javits, the federal government is required to purchase certain supplies and services from nonprofit groups like Binghamton AVRE, who participate in a program called AbilityOne that employs blind and visually impaired people to make "SkilCraft" brand products, like file folders and cleaning supplies, for the federal government. However, due to recent changes in how the federal government distributes and procures its supplies, sales of SkilCraft products manufactured at Binghamton AVRE's AbilityOne program have dropped by $1 million in the last year, putting the entire operation - and the jobs - at risk. Under the 1971 law, whenever a government agency places an order with the federal General Services Administration (GSA) or with a GSAapproved private supplier for a product such as postit notes, the order is supposed to be fulfilled using only Skilcraft brand postit notes produced by the Southern Tier workers at AVRE. However, in recent years oversight has been lax and orders for products for which there is a Skilcraft Brand option increasingly have not been fulfilled with Skilcraft products, as the law requires. Moreover, the General Services Administration is set to close its last remaining product depots, meaning all supplies will now be fulfilled by GSAapproved private suppliers, making compliance with the law even more critical.
Because of these changes Schumer explained that the federal government must ensure it is complying with the law and purchasing products from AbilityOne nonprofit agencies, since it would be extremely difficult for many of these blind employees to find a new job if the program is no longer viable. In order to ensure the AbilityOne program continues to thrive in Binghamton, Schumer called on the GSA to develop tools and resources that federal agencies and government offices can use to ensure that they are correctly adhering to the JavitsWagnerO'Day Act, and he called on the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to require federal agencies to report annually on their purchases and utilization of AbilityOne products.
"Not only are these skilled manufacturing jobs an amazing opportunity for the blind and visually impaired in the Southern Tier, but also for the entirelocal economy, as it can be extremely difficult for many blind people to find work," said Schumer. "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 sixtyfive 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."
"You won't find harder working people anywhere outside New York," said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. "The AbilityOne Program provides the blind and disabled with high quality jobs, strengthening our workforce and growing our local economy. I urge federal agencies to comply with the law and protect dozens of jobs for Rochester's blind employees."
"As someone who is legally blind and has worked my way up from a position on the manufacturing floor to my current role as President and CEO for AVRE in Binghamton, an AbilityOne nonprofit agency, I am only one of many examples of the success of the JWOD Act," said Ken Fernald, President and CEO of Binghamton's AVRE. "Opportunities are created because of the purchase power of the federal government and its partnership with AbilityOne. The AbilityOne program is critical to the success of AVRE and the sustainment and creation of jobs for individuals who are blind in our community. We applaud Senator Schumer for his efforts to ensure that jobs for New Yorkers who are blind are protected. This is a jobs program that actually works - creating good jobs with good pay and benefits for individuals who are blind, while providing the federal government with quality products and services at a fairmarketprice. Senator Schumer's commitment to stand with AbilityOne, and make sure federal agencies continue to do the right thing will help to sustain and strengthen a program that has worked well in the creation of opportunities for independence and success since 1938."
Schumer explained that the JavitsWagnerO'Day Act (JWOD) passed in 1971 requires all federal agencies purchase specified supplies-like file folders, postit notes, note pads, firstaid kits and cleaning supplies-from nonprofit agencies employing persons who are blind or have other significant disabilities. There are a number of nonprofit agencies in upstate New York who produce these SkilCraft brand products and then sell them to the federal government through its centralized procurement agency, the General Services Administration (GSA). Historically, GSA has operated distribution centers around the country that purchase these products from the nonprofits and then distribute them to federal agencies. In an effort to reduce cost through smarter procurement systems, GSA is completely turning distribution over to private companies that specialize in commercial distribution, like Staples, and has begun to close their distribution centers over the past decade; the last two to be shuttered by the end of 2014.
Sales of SkilCraft products have fallen significantly from 20112013, and the National Institute for the Blind (NIB) and its associated nonprofit agencies are very concerned about the impact these changes will have on future sales. Schumer said that the nonprofits in Upstate New York that are a part of the AbilityOne Program and produce SkilCraft office products have also expressed concern that privatization of supply distribution will result in less oversight to ensure that agencies are complying with JWOD and will hurt their business. Schumer explained that this is exactly what is happening to the AbilityOne Program in Binghamton. At the AVRE facility in Binghamton all 65 of their manufacturing employees-of which 60 percent of them are legally blind-in the AbilityOne program make SkilCraft products like copy paper and file folders. These employees make products that are directly distributed under the GSA commercial distribution system - namely postit notes, adhesive note pads, and biobased cleaning detergents. These Southern Tier residents are now at risk of losing their jobs because of this privitization.
Schumer said that sales at Binghamton AVRE's AbilityOne program dropped by $1 million in the last year, putting the entire operation at risk. Between the years of 2011 and 2012, GSA sales in Binghamton's AVREfacility decreased over 23 percent, and then further declined by over 48 percent between the years of 2012 and 2013. The AVRE program typically generates around $7 million in SkilCraft revenue through GSA, and if this trend continues, they will no longer be able to absorb the loss.
Schumer explained that while he understands the need for cost reduction and smarter federal procurement systems, the federal government cannot overlook requirements in the process. Schumer further said that losing these jobs would be a blow to the entire community. Binghamton's AVREpays its employees well above the minimum wage and provides comprehensive benefits. Nationally, approximately 97 percent of AbilityOne employees do not take welfare or public assistance benefits. Schumer explained that this means a net win for both the community and the government. The American Foundation for the Blind estimates that 70 percent of people with sustained vision loss are not working and nearly 50 percent of this population lives in poverty. What's more, many AVREemployees who start working at the facility in Binghamton learn skills and move on to advance in their career, either in different capacities at AVREor in the private sector.
Schumer was joined by Gidget Hopf, Ed.D, President and Chief Executive Officer of AVRE and AVRE AbilityOne employees. Schumer explained that the AbilityOne revenue is also a critical sustaining source of funds for the entire AVRE organization, which employs a total of 690 people in the greater Binghamton region across a variety of businesses; they also run area Goodwill Stores and have a contract for the Environmental Protection Agency's national Lead and Toxic Poison Hotline.
Schumer has worked in close collaboration with fellow New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand on ensuring the jobs at Binghamton AVRE, as well as other AbilityOne program sites around New York State are protected.
Schumer and Gillibrand's letters to the General Services Administration (GSA) and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) appear below.
Dear Administrator Tangherlini,
We write today to express our support for the AbilityOne program and ask for the federal government's adherence to the JavitsWagnerO'Day Act in light of the General Services Administration's (GSA) decision to close the depot system for storing and distributing commonly used supply items.
The AbilityOne program is the largest single provider of employment for people who are blind or have significant disabilities, such as blindness, and currently employ over 40,000 individuals at over 600 communitybased nonprofit agencies across the U.S. We are proud supporters of the AbilityOne Program in our offices and the terrific work they do to provide employment and other services for persons who are blind and disabled. As you know, approximately 70 percent of working age Americans who are blind are unemployed face serious barriers in finding employment that service their needs both on and off the job. The AbilityOne program provides participants with high quality job opportunities who would otherwise rely on public assistance allowing these people to be active members of their communities and productive members of society.
While we understand that strategic sourcing is an important tool for saving taxpayer dollars, we must continue to prioritize our commitment to the AbilityOne program. We urge you to work with stakeholders to develop additional tools and resources that federal agencies and government offices can use to ensure that they are correctly adhering to the JavitsWagnerO'Day Act which states that SKILCRAFT and AbilityOne products must be prioritized over and not substituted by commercial products in federal purchases. We also acknowledge that the GSA is committed to supporting the AbilityOne program and we urge you to recommit to the requirements set forth by the JWOD Act. Federal agencies need to be held accountable for their purchases under the premise of this law. This has been serious repercussions for our local community members employed by the AbilityOne Program, most of who are persons who are blind. The consequence will be hundreds of layoffs and furloughs for persons who are blind or severely disabled but whom otherwise can and want to become wageearners and tax payers who have personal and economic independence. In New York State there are seven agencies, five that manufacture goods and two that contract services that employ a total of nearly 400 people who are legally blind. Of these agencies, four are at risk of closing down if GSA does not enforce this crucial law. GSA's cooperation is essential to making this happen.
Again, we implore GSA to work cooperatively with the AbilityOne Commission and National Industries for the Blind (NIB) to find ways to deliver real value for the federal customer through the availability and delivery of AbilityOne products and services and increase employment for persons who are blind and severely disabled.
Charles E. Schumer Kirsten Gillibrand
United States Senator United States Senator
Dear Acting Director Deese,
I write today to ask for Office of Management and Budget (OMB) action to ensure the federal government's adherence to the JavitsWagnerO'Day (JWOD) Act in light of the General Services Administration's (GSA) decision to close the depot system for storing and distributing commonly used supply items manufactured through the AbilityOne program. The GSA sales trends over the past several years indicate that agencies are not complying to the fullest extent of the JWOD Act and GSA has been unable to prevent significant noncompliance issues with the JWOD law by ensuring that federal agencies are purchasing AbilityOne products as required by law. Noncompliance, often referred to as Essentially the Same (ETS) occurs when federal agencies purchase nonAbilityOne products from government contractors instead of the AbilityOne product as required by law. It is imperative that this law be enforced throughout all federal agencies as JWOD programs run by local nonprofits rely on this business to employ hundreds of severely disabled people across the country. Specifically to better ensure compliance I ask OMB to require federal agencies to report annually on their purchases and utilization of AbilityOne products.
As you know, the JWOD Act was passed in the early 1970's as an expansion of the 1938 WagnerO'Day Act and served the purpose of employing people who are blind or live with other severe disabilities. Since its passage, manufacturing and service jobs provided to Federal agencies have employed thousands of workers who would not otherwise have meaningful employment. Not only does the JWOD Act support employment equity, but it also supports local communities as JWOD manufacturers purchase local materials to make their products. For example, the AbilityOne program is the largest single provider of employment for people who are blind or have significant disabilities and currently employ over 40,000 individuals at over 600 communitybased nonprofit agencies across the U.S.I am a proud supporter of the AbilityOne Program in my office and the terrific work they do to provide employment and other services for persons who are blind and disabled. As you know, approximately 70 percent of working age Americans who are blind are unemployed face serious barriers in finding employment that service their needs both on and off the job.
While I understand that strategic sourcing is an important tool for saving taxpayer dollars, I must continue to prioritize our commitment to providing equitable employment opportunities to the severely disabled. I strongly urge you to work with stakeholders to develop additional tools and resources that federal agencies and government offices can use to ensure that they are correctly adhering to the JavitsWagnerO'Day Act which states that SkilCraft and AbilityOne products must be prioritized over and not substituted by commercial products in federal purchases. Federal agencies need to be held accountable for their purchases under the premise of this law.
This has had serious repercussions for our local community members employed by JWOD programs, like AbilityOne, most of who are persons who are blind. The consequence will be hundreds of layoffs and furloughs for persons who are blind or severely disabled but whom otherwise can and want to become wageearners and tax payers who have personal and economic independence. In New York State there are seven agencies, five that manufacture goods and two that contract services that employ a total of nearly 400 people who are legally blind. Of these agencies, four are at risk of closing down if this crucial law is not enforced. OMB's cooperation is essential to making this happen.
Again, I implore OMB to work cooperatively with federal agencies to find ways to deliver real value for the federal customer through the availability and delivery of products and services provided by JWOD program participants, ensure federal agencies are in compliance with the law by reporting on their annual purchases of AbilityOne products, and increase employment for persons who are blind and severely disabled.
Charles E. Schumer Kirsten Gillibrand
United States Senator United States Senator
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