Blind World Magazine

Disabled workers gain pride, and a paycheck, making burial flags for the Veterans Association.

November 12, 2005.
Press Democrat, California.

ROHNERT PARK - Rolls of fabric long enough to span two football fields are cut into strips and fed into the first in a battery of industrial sewing machines.

Strip upon strip of red and white is sewn together, joined to a blue swatch with white stars, cut into massive rectangles, hemmed and stitched some more, punched with two holes, scrutinized for flaws, folded and boxed.

In a steady rhythm, garment workers at the Rohnert Park plant turn out one flag every 90 seconds. Over the course of a year, they will produce more than 83,000 flags for the federal Department of Veterans Affairs.

Today -- Veterans Day -- chances are flags made by the crew of developmentally disabled workers and their supervisors at North Bay Industries will be flying in a North Coast neighborhood near you. Families of armed service veterans receive these official burial flags, and North Bay Industries makes the most in the West -- sturdy, impressive Stars and Stripes.

"Nothing goes through unless it's as close to perfect as humanly possible," said David Kistenmacher, a Vietnam War veteran who helps supervise the crew of developmentally disabled workers.

Workers gain pride and a paycheck making burial flags for the VA.

"Sometimes it gets hard, but I like my job," said Sue Wilson of Rohnert Park, a North Bay garment worker the past five years.

North Bay is one of the region's vocational training programs for the disabled. The nonprofit employs 14 disabled workers on the garment line and 180 in all through more than a dozen employers, as well as food service, landscaping and janitorial service contracts.

North Bay also is one of three nonprofit agencies -- the others are in the Southeast -- employing disabled workers under contracts with the VA to make half of the agency's 500,000 burial flags annually. A handful of private businesses make the other half.

Burial flags are among products made for federal agencies by some 45,000 people with disabilities across the nation through a job opportunities program dating to 1938. More than 600 community-based nonprofit organizations employ these workers, who earn about $9 an hour on average.

Product categories range from military uniforms and other garments to medical and personal safety equipment to office supplies and food items. Nonprofits also obtain janitorial and related service contracts through the program.

"There's a 70 percent rate of people not employed in that disabled community. The program is aimed to take a chunk out of that," said Annmarie Hart-Bookbinder, spokeswoman for the Committee for Purchase From People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled, an independent federal agency.

Garment lines involve some of the program's most complex work. The nonprofits have adapted technology to workers' needs, but the workers also become adept at various tasks.

The North Bay crew's workmanship is evident in their speed and efficiency.

Working with fabric and thread, cutting machines and grommet punchers -- more than a dozen work stations in all -- the crew produces 360 flags a day.

"I like this machine. It works great," Wilson said as she stitched flags fed to her in quick succession.

Mary McHenry has been sewing at North Bay for nine years. These days, she operates the grommet puncher and then stitches the company's label on each flag's border.

"I don't think how difficult the job is," said McHenry, also a Rohnert Park resident. "It's fun because it's relaxing, once you get the hang of it."

Quality control is assessed at several steps in the process. Workers inspect for fabric roll seams in the middle of stripes, oil on blue swatches from North Bay's supplier, off-center weaves in fabric and proper measurements.

A handful of workers were around in the early 1990s, when North Bay was making desert camouflage helmet covers for the Army during the first Gulf War. They earned a commendation then from President George H.W. Bush.

The garment line was larger in the past, when North Bay was making dress uniform shirts for the Navy and Army. But the federal government wanted lower prices and North Bay dropped the contract, said Robert Hutt, senior vice president.

The burial flag contract, at $32 a flag, pays for production and labor costs as long as North Bay meets its targeted volume, he said.

Those sales contribute to more than $2 billion in annual sales by the disabled job opportunities program to the federal government. The program continues to grow as long as products and services meet federal standards.

"The federal government wants what it pays for," Hart-Bookbinder said. "Clearly we're a trusted partner by the federal customers."

Contracts are bid annually, but it's hard to beat the Rohnert Park garment crew.

"Your employees are the key," Hutt said

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