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Jobs program for workers with disabilities needs boost from Congress, lawmakers say

BY: GRACE YARROW | 01/31/2024 01:05 PM EST

Lawmakers are hoping to increase federal support of a government program that employs workers who are blind or have disabilities, by strengthening purchasing requirements of nine legislative branch procurement offices.

Reps. Jasmine Crockett (D-Texas) and Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.) are co-leading a letter sent Wednesday to the House Committee on Administration asking the committee to enforce legislative offices’ obligation to engage with the program, AbilityOne.

The group employs 36,000 people who are blind or “significantly disabled” across the country, supplying almost $4 billion in products and services to the federal government in the 2022 fiscal year, the latest data available. The program has a catalog of 3,000 AbilityOne-manufactured items from office supplies to medical tools.

Federal entities are required under the Javits-Wagner-O’Day (JWOD) Act to procure goods and services from AbilityOne workers when possible.

But that mandate lacks clear enforcement measures in the legislative branch, Crockett and Molinaro found.

“This is not only the law, but there are steps that we can be taking to promote goods and services developed and produced by those with disabilities,” Molinaro told POLITICO.

AbilityOne has drawn criticism from some quarters.

A 2020 report by the National Council on Disability called AbilityOne an “outdated model that results in the segregation of people with disabilities.” The report also pointed to confusion about JWOD and AbilityOne compliance roles and said the number of people with disabilities employed under the program had stagnated.

Nine legislative offices are subject to JWOD requirements: the Congressional Budget Office, Architect of the Capitol, Library of Congress, Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, Government Accountability Office, Government Publishing Office, U.S. Capitol Police, Stennis Center for Public Service and Office of Congressional Workplace Rights.

Eight of those nine offices responded to letters from Molinaro and Crockett saying they comply with the law and prioritize AbilityOne products. But the Chief Administrative Officer stated that the office’s participation is voluntary, according to the letter.

Crockett said the confusion around the law exhibits one of the “biggest problems” in Congress: lack of follow-through.

“We’re consistently passing amazing legislation,” she told POLITICO. “Everyone goes out and they tout what was passed and very few people ask questions about implementation, or ask for some documentation of how it’s going.”

SourceAmerica, an organization tasked with supporting AbilityOne since 1974, has focused on federal agency procurement, not necessarily congressional.

“It is an awareness problem. And that’s why it’s been great that we have these members of Congress reaching out to us,” said Rick Terrazas, vice president of government affairs at SourceAmerica.

In the letter, the lawmakers request the Administration Committee’s help to make a few key changes to JWOD implementation. First, legislative offices would be required to hire or train AbilityOne representatives to serve as internal advocates. Most of the nine offices either already have a representative or are in the process of designating one.

They’re also hoping to mandate annual data collection from each office tracking specific procurement costs and updates on what they’re doing to increase procurement from AbilityOne vendors.

The letter also proposes updating the committee’s procurement guidelines and providing information on AbilityOne to new members.

The AbilityOne requirements do not apply to individual member offices, but proponents hope the new push will create discussion about the benefits of procuring AbilityOne products even if not legally required.

AbilityOne Senior Advisor Brian Hoey called the letter a “huge step forward” that could lead to an increase of job opportunities, potentially reversing a years-long decline in AbilityOne employment.

In 2022, 21.3% of persons with a disability were employed in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and numerous groups support them.

“We’re just one option of a number of options for Americans who are blind, but we’re an important option,” said Rick Webster, vice president, public policy at National Industries for the Blind, which works with the AbilityOne program.

Molinaro told POLITICO he’s confident House Administration Committee Chair Bryan Steil (R-Wis.) will support the changes suggested in the letter.

“I can’t speak for the committee as a whole but our interaction with the committee is that they acknowledged that this is the law and that they understood and appreciate our advocacy,” Molinaro said.

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