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Contractors Try 'Soft Message' to Save Disabled Workers From Sequester

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call
Ussery cleans a bathroom in the Capitol Visitor Center. He is employed through AbilityOne, a government program that could experience steep cuts if a deal isn’t reached to avert the fiscal cliff.

Advocates for the disabled argue that the community suffers more than any other population in a weak economy. They say the program — which pays workers an average of $11.34 an hour — actually saves the government money, increasing payroll tax revenue and reducing reliance on food stamps, Medicaid and other government assistance. NISH says it relies primarily on grass-roots efforts to make its case with lawmakers, organizing annual fly-ins for program participants and inviting lawmakers to visit work sites in their districts.

“The most powerful interaction that we have with Congress are the workers themselves,” Chamberlin said. “That’s the most powerful tool that we have.”

But the organization also has lobbyists, who work a wide range of legislation that affects disabled workers from job training legislation to the defense authorization bill.

“We are explaining to our friends on Capitol Hill that significant cuts in government spending could have a major and disproportionate effect on people with disabilities who rely on government contracts for their livelihood,” said Andy Rosenberg, a lobbyist at Thorn Run Partners, who has represented NISH since early 2010. “It’s a ‘soft’ sort of message, but it is important that we try to make policymakers aware of the human consequences of these negotiations.”

Still, for a routinely underfunded and overlooked community, influencing the debate over such an all-encompassing issue as the sequester seems unlikely. Instead, the nonprofits are eyeing ways to live with tighter budgets, to find efficiencies where they thought no more were possible.

In Norfolk, Atkinson is worried that cuts will not only mean layoffs, but also prohibit his organization from hiring workers with significant disabilities who operate at less-than-full productivity.

“They are not employable out in the general industry because they are not going to meet the productivity standards,” he added. “They got two speeds: slow and stop.”

The AbilityOne Commission, a government entity that manages the program, operates on a budget of more than $5 million. In previous years, the commission unsuccessfully requested more money but didn’t bother in its 2013 proposal.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., a member of the House subcommittee that oversees the federal workforce, said the cuts would undoubtedly affect AbilityOne.

“That would be, I think, catastrophic,” he said. “It’s really about your values. Do you believe in investing in human capital or not?” he said.

Ussery spent his whole life in special education and said most of his friends are still unemployed. But he is not worried about losing his job. Instead, he’s laser-focused on cleaning seven public bathrooms and maybe becoming a team leader. “I done that so the restrooms keep on getting better and better,” he said.

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