Braille Monitor                                                                                April 1986

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Sheltered Workshops: Now Congress is Asking the Hard Questions, and Where are the Answers?

The Committee for Purchase from the Blind and Other Severely Handicapped is a small federal agency with a staff of about a dozen and an annual budget of less than $1 million. Its establishment, authority, and functions are set out in the Javits-Wagner-O'Day Act. Generally the Committee is responsible for ruling on the eligibility of sheltered workshops to sell their products to the government without competition and for deciding what items federal agencies are required to buy from the workshops.

As every other federal government agency is required to do, the Committee appears each year before Congressional subcommittees in the House and Senate having to do with the appropriation of money. In the past the Committee's appearances have been pro forma, and the small appropriation has later been approved without question or controversy.

Things are changing, however. During this year's appropriations cycle, the Committee is being required to submit more information to Congress than ever before. That is not by accident. It is all part of the chain of events we set in motion several years ago designed to reform the sheltered workshop system. Those reforms are now coming, one step at a time. Remember the House Report which criticized the workshops for tokenism, finding that few blind or handicapped people are employed as managers or supervisors? The same criticism was also leveled at National Industries for the Blind.

Some in Congress want to know if there has been any improvement. So the best time for them to find out is when the Committee comes to Capitol Hill to ask for money. It's the old principle: "You have to give a little to get a little." The Committee's annual funding request is first considered at the appropriations subcommittee level in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The procedure used by the subcommittee involves a hearing, at which the chairman or any members may ask any questions they may have about the Committee's program. Normally the hearing is routine and uneventful, and the script is cut and dried.

But last year there was a new tone. Subcommittee members in the Senate seemed quite interested in finding out how employment opportunities for the blind in sheltered workshops compare with employment opportunities for the sighted. Questions were also raised about employment of the blind at National Industries for the Blind, a subject that almost seemed taboo in the past. What's more, the Senate subcommittee was even interested in the financing of National Industries for the Blind. These questions were significant by themselves. But the answers of the Committee witnesses (which amounted to "We don't know," or, "We don't have that information") were even more revealing. Here is a transcript of the exchange:

Additional Committee Questions

Question: For the record, please provide a list of all organizations or groups that received grants from National Industries for the Blind since the beginning of the NIB's fiscal year 1982.

Answer: The Committee for Purchase does not have that information since it is an activity conducted by the central nonprofit agencies (CNA's) outside the Committee's program.

Question: Provide the amount of each grant to each organization or group and state the purpose for which the funds were provided.

Answer: The Committee does not have that information.

Question: How many jobs does the Committee's program provide for the blind and handicapped in direct labor?

Answer: In fiscal year 1984 there were 14,134 blind and other severely handicapped persons employed in producing commodities or providing services for the government under the Committee's program.

Question: What percentage of all direct labor jobs in the workshops does this represent?

Answer: The Committee does not have that information.

Question: What percentage of the management and supervisory jobs are held by persons who are blind or handicapped?

Answer: The Committee does not have that information.

Question: Is your Committee aware of recent findings by the Department of Labor that Milwaukee Industries for the Blind has not complied with affirmative action for the handicapped requirements of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973?

Answer: Yes.

Question: What program does your Committee have in place to inform blind and handicapped workers of their rights to affirmative action for employment and advancement in the workshops?

Answer: The regulations regarding affirmative action obligations of government contractors are published and enforced by the Department of Labor. They are included in Code of Federal Regulations Title 41, Part 60-741. Question: During fiscal year 1985 how many new positions in management and supervision of workshops were obtained for blind and handicapped persons due to the additions of products or services to the procurement list?

Answer: The Committee does not have that information.

Question: How many jobs would you anticipate would be added in management and supervision during fiscal year 1986 to employ the blind and handicapped? Answer: The Committee has no basis for forecasting the number of management and supervisory jobs to be added in fiscal year 1986.

Question: Please explain the Committee's method of approving or disapproving annual budgets of the central nonprofit agencies.

Answer: The Committee does not approve or disapprove the annual budgets of the central nonprofit agencies.

Question: Do you evaluate budget needs of the CNA's (central nonprofit agencies) and direct changes in the commissions they charge to the workshops?

Answer: The Committee evaluates the needs of the central nonprofit agencies in order to establish the maximum fee that the central nonprofit agencies may charge their participating workshops.

Question: Please indicate how often within the past five years these adjustments have been directed by the Committee.

Answer: During the past five years the Committee has not changed the limit of four percent that the central nonprofit agencies may charge their participating workshops.

Question: Does current law give your Committee authority to require workshops to employ blind and handicapped people in management jobs?

Answer: No.

Question: In your judgment are the blind and severely handicapped fairly represented in the management of the workshops?

Answer: The Committee has no basis for answering this question. The Committee encourages participating workshops to employ blind and handicapped in management or supervisory positions.

Question: As a criteria for designating the central nonprofit agencies, has your Committee developed formal requirements for them to follow in employing blind and handicapped people?

Answer: No.

Question: Please explain which jobs at National Industries for the Blind are now being done by blind employees.

Answer: The Committee does not have that information.

Question: What is NIB's (National Industries for the Blind) total work force?

Answer: The Committee does not have that information.

Question: What is NIB's total payroll?

Answer: The Committee does not have that information.

Question: What amount of NIB's total payroll represents salaries and fringe benefits paid to blind employees?

Answer: The Committee does not have that information.

Question: Is it the Committee's position that budget and spending practices of the central nonprofit agencies are beyond the scope of Congressional review each year during the appropriations process?

Answer: The Committee does not have a position on this subject since it is the prerogative of the Congress to determine what information the Committee must submit to support its appropriation request.

Question: Isn't it true that the total cost of your program includes the commission payments made to the central nonprofit agencies?

Answer: No.

Question: What would the total cost of the Committee's program be if you included the amount of the commission payments to the CNA's for fiscal year 1985?

Answer: The Committee does not agree that the fee paid the central nonprofit agencies is part of the cost to the government of the Committee's program.

Question: What do you expect the total cost (including CNA commissions) to be for fiscal year 1986?

Answer: See reply to the previous question.

This exchange took place in writing and appears as a part of the printed record of last year's Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing. It is that record which formed the basis for later action by the full appropriations committee. Here's how it works. The full Committee approves an appropriations bill stating the amount of money which each agency may spend during the federal fiscal year in question. A report is also produced by the full Committee containing certain instructions and requirements which may pertain to the spending of money by any federal agency. The Committee Report is also used to require federal agencies to submit certain types of information during the consideration of future funding requests.

With this in mind, the Senate Appropriations Committee was obviously less than pleased with the answers of "We don't know," or "We don't have that information." Any agency may be able to get away with such responses the first time the questions are asked, but Congress can ultimately require the answers to be produced, no matter how unpleasant they may be. So, on September 9, 1985, the Senate Appropriations Committee got its chance to respond to the "We don't know," and "We don't have that information," kind of answers.

Senate Report 99-133 announces several new requirements that the Committee for Purchase from the Blind and Other Severely Handicapped must meet beginning with the appropriations request for fiscal year 1987. It is significant that the Senate Appropriations Committee is now demanding to know what kind of employment opportunities are being offered to the blind in workshops as compared to those that are offered to the sighted. They also want to compare average pay scales for the blind and the sighted. And not just for the workshops but for National Industries for the Blind, as well. These reporting requirements are unparalleled in the history of the Javits-Wagner-O'Day program.

The Committee on Purchase from the Blind and Other Severely Handicapped is already showing signs of resistance, arguing that there is too much paperwork in gathering the information for Congress. That is nonsense, of course. The Committee should be assembling such information (especially about employment opportunities and pay for the blind) in the normal course of its business. The resistance in reporting this data is either a marked insensitivity to the employment needs of the blind and handicapped or perhaps there is more than just a little shame involved for the Committee to have to admit that the management ranks of this program are still rife with tokenism. Despite its resistance, the Committee will ultimately have to tell Congress how the workshops are doing. Platitudes are no longer good enough. Congress wants to know if blind and handicapped people are being hired in the upper level ranks and how their pay compares to that of the sighted who are not handicapped. It's about time someone asked. The answers will be enlightening, to say the least. Here is the entire section from the Senate Committee Report:

Senate Report 99-133

The Committee recommends the full budget request of $730,000 for the Committee for Purchase from the Blind and Other Severely Handicapped. The Committee's primary objective is to increase the employment opportunities for the blind and other severely handicapped and, whenever possible, to prepare them to engage in normal competitive employment. The Committee on Purchase determines which commodities and services are suitable for Government procurement from qualified nonprofit agencies serving the blind and other severely handicapped; publishes a procurement list of such commodities and services; determines the fair market price for commodities and services on the procurement list; and makes rules and regulations necessary to carry out the purposes of the act. The Committee staff supervises the selection and assignment of new commodities and services, assists in establishing prices, reviews and adjusts these prices, verifies the qualifications of workshops, and monitors their performance.

Reports from the Committee for Purchase from the Blind and Other Severely Handicapped

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