This is devastating news, according to this morning’s El Paso Times, the offices of the National Center for Employment of the Disabled (NCED) was raided yesterday by four government agencies: the IRS, GSA, FBI and the US Army’s special fraud unit. The NCED -a not for profit sewing contractor of mostly military related products- has long been lauded for providing jobs to disabled people in addition to an extensive list of public good works. According to sources (who will remain unnamed), while it is apparent that there may be some problems with the total number of severely disabled employees working for NCED, it is also true that they passed their four times yearly audits. Similarly, once a contractor has been shown to be out of compliance, there is a usual grace period of two years that is granted to allow them the needed time to re-comply with program guidelines. Unfortunately, doubt (and rumors) abound as to whether the NCED will be given the customary grace period. At stake are 4,000 jobs in an area of the country that has twice the national average in unemployment (11%). NCED/Sahara is one of El Paso’s major employers. As contracts have been suspended, already 1,000 mostly disabled people have lost their jobs.
When Congress created the nation’s most ambitious jobs program for Americans with severe disabilities, the idea was straightforward and rich with compassion.
Federal agencies would reserve contracts for small nonprofit workshops that hired epileptics, paraplegics and the mentally retarded to make simple products such as mousetraps, blackboards and first-aid kits. The disabled would gain a decent paycheck, some self-esteem and a chance to learn skills that someday might land them a better job.
More than three decades later, the nonprofits increasingly are hiring workers who are mildly disabled, if at all, with aching backs, substance-abuse problems and other maladies common in the American workplace. This new class of federally subsidized worker is getting the highest-paid jobs, while many of the most severely disabled toil for pennies an hour.
Called Javits-Wagner-O’Day after its founders in Congress, the program requires federal agencies to buy certain goods or services from nonprofits that employ blind or severely disabled workers. Prices are set by regulators and the nonprofits, which collaborate with federal agencies that set aside contracts for the nonprofits.
Regarding the Javits-Wagner-O’Day program (JWOD), it
…provides employment opportunities for more than 45,000 Americans who are blind or have other severe disabilities by orchestrating Government purchases of products and services provided by nonprofit agencies employing such individuals throughout the country. In 1938, the Wagner-O’Day Act was passed under President Franklin D. Roosevelt in order to provide employment opportunities for people who are blind by allowing them to manufacture mops and brooms to sell to the Federal Government.
In 1971…Congress amended this … to include people with severe disabilities and allow the Program to also provide services to the Federal Government. Over sixty years later, this extraordinary socioeconomic program provides Federal customers with a wide array of quality products and services, while providing thousands of people with severe disabilities real jobs and increased independence.
The Committee for Purchase From People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled is the JWOD Program’s Federal overseer. Through two Central Nonprofit Agencies, National Industries for the Blind and NISH (serving people with a range of disabilities), the Committee currently works with over 600 nonprofit agencies across the country, as well as in Puerto Rico and Guam, to provide employment opportunities to people with severe disabilities. The purchase of JWOD products and services by Federal customers helps battle the 70 percent unemployment rate faced by this untapped labor resource.
[By the way, 90% of disabled people live below the federal poverty level as compared to only 10% of the elderly. Consequently, I’ve long disagreed with senior citizen’s discounts. If businesses are providing discounts on the basis of financial resources, the discounts should go to the disabled rather than the elderly.]
So why should you care? I’ve long looked at NCED (aka Sahara Sportswear) as a viable source for domestic contracting for people like you. With increasing numbers of US manufacturers returning to domestic production, available contracting slots are drying up -and don’t you know it. We need more domestic sewing contractors regardless of whom they employ. I know that most of you would agree that being able to hire the disadvantaged would be icing on the cake.
Other than the allegations listed here, another of my concerns is the reported average wage earned by NCED employees. According to the El Paso Times, the average stitcher is earning a little over $6 an hour as compared to the average wage (1995) of over $9 an hour. However, regarding the allegations of NCED’s failure to hire sufficient numbers of disabled workers, David Crowder of the El Paso Times reports:
Current and past employees interviewed by the El Paso Times have questioned NCED’s assertions that it has disabled workers doing most of the work, but employee Claudia Hayes sides with NCED.
The 38-year-old East Side resident said she has become self-sufficient and earned enough to live independently by working for NCED for the past year and a half. She said she is classified as severely disabled because of a mental disorder.
“I’ve been in and out of mental hospitals and couldn’t find a job, but they took me in and gave me work and asked me if I was comfortable with it,” she said. Now the work cutbacks are biting into everyone’s income, she said. “We don’t get a lot of hours; we don’t have a lot of material to work with or a lot of work now.” she said. “I”m having a really hard time paying my rent.”
She said she isn’t upset with NCED but is angry about the investigation and the findings that few NCED workers are disabled. “If you would look at me, you would not know I’m disabled,” she said. “A lot of disabled people here are very independent and will get very upset if people help them. They want to be treated like everyone else.”
Personally, I don’t look disabled either yet I’d have a hard time holding down a full-time regular job without significant accomodations. Not a few times did I think of applying for work at NCED when I lived in El Paso. The sewing factories of America have long been filled with the (undiagnosed) autistic and learning disabled -many of whom haven’t had the medical or financial infrastructure to get an official diagnosis. There’s a reason my tutorials are simple and direct, it comes from over 20 years of experience in training sewing line operators -none of whom are stupid.