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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.

Just steps from where Congress is debating the fiscal cliff, Rico Ussery, a 26-year-old man who speaks only in monosyllables, cleans restrooms in the Capitol Visitor Center, seemingly unaware of the economic and personal stakes.

He’s one of thousands of disabled workers contracted by federal agencies to stitch flags, serve food and do custodial tasks whose jobs could be eliminated if lawmakers fail to reach a year-end budget deal, triggering steep automatic cuts to defense and other programs.

Concerned about an impasse, advocates for people with disabilities and contractors who employ workers such as Ussery are preparing to salvage a program that drives $3 billion in government contracts a year to nonprofits that employ severely disabled Americans.

Any cuts to discretionary spending would slash $55 billion from the Pentagon’s fiscal 2013 budget. About half of all the projects secured by the government program, AbilityOne, are paid for by the Defense Department budget; the program’s workers have a presence at nearly every U.S. military installation. But Pentagon officials have said operations and maintenance — the very projects most suitable for the disabled — will likely be hit the hardest.

For Peckham Inc., a Lansing, Mich., nonprofit that employs disabled workers to manufacture military clothing, those cuts would mean revenue losses of about 25 percent, or $45 million, the company projects. Eggleston Services Inc., another nonprofit that relies on Navy contracts to employ hundreds of disabled in the Norfolk, Va., area, might have to lay off 20 percent of its workforce.

“We are reluctant to say too much to our employees as these kinds of concern hurt morale and productivity,” said Paul Atkinson, the Eggleston president and CEO, in a phone interview after a financial planning meeting. “We are the infrastructure for cleaning, for feeding, for laundry services in these environments, so when you begin to look at cuts they can happen a lot of ways.”

The White House Office of Management and Budget has not said how much power the Pentagon would have to reshuffle the cuts, which are supposed to affect all programs equally. “We have no idea where sequestration would hit us,” said Bob Chamberlin, the president and CEO of NISH, a nonprofit that acts as a liaison between Washington and 600 contractors dedicated to employing the disabled.

For the past year, lobbyists for major defense firms have outlined their concerns about the impending sequester. The task is much more complex for the beneficiaries of a program for the disabled that, at times, win contracts other for-profit companies would like. The AbilityOne program requires agencies to purchase certain services from contractors that hire the disabled, including those with developmental disorders and physical impairments.

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