San Francisco Chronicle, California.
Sunday, June 11, 2006.
Chicago -- Rita McCabe says it was a proud moment back in 1979 when she gave her mother one of the clocks she had made at the Chicago Lighthouse, a century-old nonprofit group dedicated to employing the blind.
The clock still works. It's simple and sturdy, a 12-inch face set in a deep brown frame -- the same clock that, for nearly three decades, has been keeping time inside most U.S. government offices.
The nonprofit's hold on the market of helping government workers tell time came thanks to a 1930s federal law, called the Wagner-O'Day Act: It requires federal purchasing managers, whenever possible, to favor buying certain goods and services made by blind workers.
But amid lawmakers' mantra to cut costs and stretch tax dollars -- as well as the globalization of the public marketplace -- the power of such legislation has waned. Chicago Lighthouse officials say they have watched as time and again, state and federal agencies ignore the law and opt for less expensive imports.
In addition to competition issues, the program originally intended to benefit the blind has become entwined with efforts to help people with other disabilities -- some not as well defined -- and have helped trigger a review of the program. There's a lot of money at stake: The program has doubled in size in the last five years, thanks to a boost in military spending, and annually sets aside about $2.25 billion in contracts.
The law was designed to give market protection to enterprises such as Chicago Lighthouse, and for almost 30 years, orders for its clocks have been sent through the General Services Administration, the procurement arm of the federal government.
The Illinois nonprofit, which used to control nearly 80 percent of the federal contracts for timepieces, has seen its market share shrink to about 50 percent. Its customers are turning to the competition: a flood of battery-operated clocks made in China.
As a result, Chicago Lighthouse has been forced to cut workers' hours -- from a 40-hour week to a 30-hour week. Other programs for the blind around the nation have seen a similar shift in fortunes.
Envision, a nonprofit in Wichita, Kan., that employs blind workers to make printer cartridges and air filters, said it has seen its sales slump in recent years. At Blind Industries and Services of Maryland, officials at the Baltimore-based enterprise used to rely on sales of paper to federal agencies to make up nearly one-third of their $9 million annual budget, said President Fred Puente.
"Now, with competition, it's about one-half of 1 percent of our annual sales," Puente said. "We had to move into other areas, such as cutting fabric for military and prison uniforms. Even there, we're barely keeping our sales flat."
Later this year, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions will review the federal legislation governing the contracts to assess how it's being implemented -- and its efficiency. Part of the program's problems, critics say, date back to the 1970s when Congress expanded the act.
Renamed the Javits-Wagner-O'Day Act, it grouped blind workers with those with other severe disabilities, such as mental retardation, and Vietnam War veterans who returned from war with missing limbs or brain damage.
The law has a set standard for who is blind -- even with correction, 20/200 vision in the best eye -- but not for other disabilities.
The program simply states that workers need to have a "severe physical or mental impairment," one that so affects their ability to be employed that they can't engage in the normal, competitive workplace.
As the years passed, what qualified as a "severe disability" changed as nonprofits, with a nod from federal regulators, expanded the definition. Some nonprofits selling their products under the Javits-Wagner-O'Day Act say those with speech difficulties or drug addictions are severely disabled.
Last month, an investigation by The Oregonian newspaper found some nonprofit groups were hiring workers who were only mildly disabled, or completely healthy. The paper reported that the program's biggest contractor -- the National Center for the Employment of the Disabled in El Paso, Texas -- had pulled in more than $800 million in government sales, even though it couldn't document most of its workers' disabilities.
"Are there problems? Yes," said Puente of Blind Industries and Services of Maryland. "We need changes, and it's got to come from the government."
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who has asked to take part in the upcoming Senate committee hearing, describes the Chicago Lighthouse's operation as a model program that accomplishes exactly what lawmakers originally intended.
Initially, Chicago Lighthouse earned a reputation as being a home away from home for the local blind community, a place where the sightless of all ages could come for counseling and job training.
Through the years, workers here have bundled together brooms, assembled science experiment kits for children and woven baskets.
"The idea for the clocks came about in the 1970s, when we were brainstorming for new products and new ideas," said James Kesteloot, president and executive director. "We had to figure out ways to take away all eye-hand coordination, when building a clock is all about putting together pieces that are very small and exact."
Last year alone, McCabe and the other 14 blind workers here pieced together more than 104,000 bold-numbered faces with tiny timers, which hang on the walls of each of the military branches, the Justice Department and the U.S. Postal Service.
"I ride three buses to get to work every morning, and I have for more than 26 years," said McCabe, 51. "This pays my bills, and makes me feel great for having done such a good job for so long."
On the assembly line on a recent morning, as the sound of carts groaning with the weight of boxed clocks filled the air, McCabe and fellow worker Albert Harris, 55, sat side-by-side and chatted cheerfully about the upcoming baseball season.
It takes the 10-person assembly team -- two of whom are both blind and deaf -- less than a minute to build a clock. (Nearly all of the clockmakers are blind, though only 40 percent of all the Chicago Lighthouse workers are blind.)
In sync, each worker sifts through a small plastic box filled with clock motors and places them into a slot on the table. The motors are notched, so the workers can tell which direction they go.
Within seconds, they slide the clock's plastic exterior into place, slip the clock face on, and tighten the motor with a quick twist of a motorized wrench. After lining up the minute and hour hands -- each marked with a tab to distinguish one from the other -- they send the finished product along the conveyor belt to be dusted, boxed and shipped.
By lunch, they have built nearly 175 clocks. Some are as small as a salad plate; others larger than a pizza platter.
"I've tried to apply for other jobs, and I always get told no," said Albert Harris, who has worked at the Chicago Lighthouse for 28 years. "Without this, I'd need far more financial help from the government."
Indeed, a 2003 study by the National Industries for the Blind found that the federal government had saved about $3,100 per person in reduced aid costs for every disabled worker employed in the program.
Said Obama: "Paying a small mark-up on clocks is not going to make a significant dent in the federal budget, but it will make a large difference to these workers in the long run."
End of article.
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