by James H. Omvig
From the Editor: Jim Omvig is a longtime leader in the NFB. He has currently retired to Arizona for the second time. In a very real sense Jim and his wife Sharon will never retire from doing what they can to improve the lives of blind people.
For the past six years Jim has served on the President’s Committee for Purchase from People who Are Blind or Severely Disabled. The program for the blind that this group operates is called AbilityOne. Jim has worked hard to improve conditions and prospects for blind and otherwise disabled workers and to educate professionals in this field about the abilities of these workers. A good example of his work is the committee’s newly adopted vision statement, which Jim drafted. It reads:
The AbilityOne Program enables all people who are blind or have other severe disabilities to achieve their maximum employment potential. The vision will be realized when:
The work is sometimes slow, but improvements in the prospects of the workers in the program are definite and discernable. Here is Jim Omvig’s most recent report:
In the February 2007 issue of the Braille Monitor, I offered an article entitled, “It's Not Your Grandfather's NIB Anymore.” I wrote it because much had changed in the Javits-Wagner-O'Day program since the early days when it was necessary for the Federation constantly to challenge the system to improve wages and working conditions for blind sheltered shop workers. Recently additional significant, positive changes have taken place in the program, so it's time for another update.
I was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2003 to be a member of the Committee for Purchase from People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled. My interest in the Javits-Wagner-O'Day (JWOD) program, however, goes back a long way before that presidential appointment--more than forty years. I had heard of what were then called "sheltered workshops" way back in 1961, while I was a student of Kenneth Jernigan in the Iowa Commission for the Blind's Orientation and Adjustment Center. Since Iowa didn't have a shop, we Orientation Center students took a trip to Kansas to tour one and to meet blind people who were working there. We met blind people who were making mattresses and who were being paid $.25 per hour--with no other benefits. When we returned home to Iowa, we spent several philosophy class sessions discussing the pros and cons of this type of employment for the blind.
My next encounter with the shops was in 1965 when I was attending law school at Loyola University in Chicago. I was hard-pressed for cash that summer and got a job working on the production line at the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind. I earned $.75 per hour. I knew that during this period the National Federation of the Blind was trying year after year without success to get the Congress to pass a law requiring that the shops for the blind pay blind workers at least the federal minimum wage.
It was in 1969 that the sheltered shop issue came to my attention again, and it was a distressing situation. I had graduated from law school in Chicago in 1966 and got my first job working as a labor law attorney with the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C., later that fall. Because that first job was simply doing writing and research at the Labor Board's headquarters, I set to work and got myself transferred to New York City, where I would be working with real people on real cases in real courtrooms.
Early in 1969 one of my New York coworkers--Steve--came to me and said, "I've got a case to work on in which I'm sure you would be interested. Some blind workers in a sheltered workshop out on Long Island are trying to unionize to improve their wages and working conditions, and I'm sick about it. I've been doing my research, and I'm going to have to dismiss their petition for a National Labor Relations Board election."
"Steve, why in the world would you do that?" I asked him with astonishment. As office mates we had talked a lot, and I knew Steve had become truly interested in the problems and rights of blind people.
Steve said, "As I was doing routine research, I found a 1960 case from San Diego in which the issue of blind workers’ organizing and being represented by a union came up. The National Labor Relations Board itself actually ruled, in a three-to-two split decision, that the blind workers aren't really workers like other Americans. They accepted the statements of management that the blind workers are more like trainees, and therefore they don't have the same rights as sighted employees to unionize."
Steve and I reread the case together, and his understanding of the ruling was correct. However, we also read the opinion of the two dissenters. They said essentially, "The blind workers are supervised; they punch a time-clock; they don't get paid if they don't show up for work; and they pay federal and state taxes, and Social Security premiums are withheld from their checks. They look like real American employees to us."
But, in spite of the fine dissenting opinion, Steve had no choice but to dismiss the Long Island case, based on the Board's majority opinion. However, this experience gave me a permanent interest in the rights of blind American workers. I was able to get a high AFL/CIO official to come to the 1969 National Federation of the Blind convention, where he pledged that the union would take up the cause and support blind workers if they wanted to try to unionize, and much has happened since then.
Briefly let me start at the beginning to bring newer readers up to speed. What is the Committee for Purchase from People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled? What is NIB? What is NISH? What is the JWOD Program, and what in the world is AbilityOne?
During the difficult times of the 1930s--the Great Depression--the Congress was trying to figure out how to create jobs so that average Americans could work their way back into prosperity--a situation not unlike today. As a part of the Great Depression job-creation effort, many new federal buildings were being constructed.
It occurred to a couple of members of Congress named Wagner and O'Day that these new buildings would need to be cleaned, and they were aware that the blind made brooms, brushes, and mops in what were then called sheltered workshops. They introduced a proposal into the Congress which would say basically that, where the federal government could use items such as mops or brooms that were made by the blind, it should buy them from the blind. The bill passed, and the 1938 Wagner-O'Day program was born. It required that at least 75 percent of the production work in each producing agency must be performed by the blind. Also a nonprofit agency, National Industries for the Blind (NIB), was created at that time to manage activities between the federal agencies that would do the purchasing and the local programs for the blind that would do the manufacturing.
In those early days, however, most members of Congress were interested only in jobs when it came to blind workers. They hadn't given much thought to what kind of jobs the blind could do, or what kind of wages, working conditions, or benefits should be made available. In fact, in that same year―1938―Congress also passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, a law to deal with wages and hours for American workers. Since many congressmen and senators mistakenly assumed that the blind could not be as productive as the sighted and probably couldn't do most jobs at all, they included a provision in the new wage and hour law―Section 14C—that said that the sheltered shops would not have to pay blind workers the minimum wages which would now be required for all sighted―normal―American workers.
In the early years of the program, the work for the blind moved gradually from mops, brushes, and brooms to the assembling of ballpoint pens and writing pads and the production and assembly of certain items for the military. But, while the types of jobs changed, wages, employee benefits, and working conditions generally did not, and the program began to come under severe criticism from the National Federation of the Blind. As I said, during those years the Federation introduced many minimum wage proposals into the Congress. But those managing the shops opposed these bills, sometimes hinting, sometimes openly stating that the shops would close if Congress required them to pay fair wages.
The original Wagner-O'Day Act underwent major changes in 1971 when Senator Jacob Javits of New York became interested in the program. He engineered two major changes: First, he was able to get Congress to include severely disabled workers under the coverage of the law; and, second, while the original law required that the federal government purchase only manufactured products from the blind, Javits was able to add the provision of services to what the government should be required to purchase from the blind or severely disabled.
These changes offered great opportunity for expansion, and, as a natural outgrowth of these amendments, the program became the Javits-Wagner-O'Day (JWOD) program. Also a fifteen-member, presidentially-appointed committee was established along with a stand-alone, federal agency to manage the program. This agency--nicknamed the "President's Committee"--is called the Committee for Purchase from People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled. Also at that same time a new nonprofit agency, National Industries for the Severely Handicapped (NISH), was established to manage activities between the federal agencies and the industries that employed those who were then known as the "severely handicapped."
I personally became involved in the program again from 1972 through 1976. I was then directing the Iowa Commission for the Blind's Orientation and Adjustment Center, but I also worked (as a Federation volunteer) with Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind and other blind sheltered shop employees on two issues--forming an NFB Sheltered Shop Employees' Division and unionizing the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind to improve wages and working conditions.
On the issue of unionization in Chicago, I told the blind employees that the struggle would be hard and long and that it would also be complicated. They would first have to select a union to represent them. Then they would have to request a National Labor Relations Board election so they could vote as to whether or not they wanted union representation. After a hearing they would be denied the right to an election because the board had already ruled in the old San Diego case that blind workers deserved no federal protection. Then I would appeal the denial to the five-member Board itself and argue in my briefs that they should reverse themselves and change the law. Then we would wait!
The sheltered shop employees did decide to form an NFB Division, and the Chicago Lighthouse employees did decide to seek union representation. And, happily, in late June of 1976, the ruling came. The Board overturned the old 1960 decision and ruled that, henceforth, blind workers would enjoy the same rights, privileges, and protections as those enjoyed by sighted workers. The Chicago action also encouraged blind workers across the country, and before long several of the agencies were unionized. I believe it is fair to say that from then on management began to view blind workers differently.
Perhaps this was the beginning of real change, not only in wages and working conditions, but also in management/employee relationships in the program. The record reveals that much began to be different beginning in the 80s, 90s, and on into the new century. The type of work available to blind employees today has also changed dramatically. The blind began to produce more and more items for the military, including the sewing of uniforms. The blind also began getting into more and more community-based service employment and began to do work like operating military and other federal switchboards. In more recent times both the blind and severely disabled have begun to do much more work in such fields as federal document destruction and data-scanning. The blind also operate major military warehouses and work in or manage small stores (Base Supply Centers) on military bases.
In 2002 my friends Joanne Wilson and Jim Gashel came to me and said, "We know you have a long history of interest in blind sheltered shop employees, and we believe that, because of your many years of experience, you have the qualifications for a federal position. We think we should work to get President Bush to appoint you to the Committee for Purchase so you can work from the inside to help blind workers." We discussed it at some length, and we finally agreed. We set about it with our various political contacts, and I was appointed by President Bush in February of 2003.
As a part of recent modernization, National Industries for the Severely Handicapped simply became NISH, and the JWOD Program has become the AbilityOne Program. This new identity is catching on swiftly and is being received positively by the various stakeholders involved. Another sign of progress is that presently a private citizen member named Andy Houghton, a wheelchair user, serves as committee chairman, and I am its vice chairman. This is the first time in history that two disabled private citizen members are serving in these positions. The Committee has always been led and chaired by high-level federal agency presidential appointees.
Historically, disabled production workers have rarely had the chance to move up from production work into management, but that is changing too. Both the NISH and NIB programs now work routinely toward upward mobility and to place blind or severely disabled employees outside the AbilityOne system in competitive employment. They are required by the AbilityOne Program's strategic plan to set ambitious targets each year for this objective. In 1998 NIB hired its first blind CEO. He is Jim Gibbons, and before long NIB began to concentrate more seriously than it ever had on the issue of upward mobility for its blind workers.
Concerning upward mobility, I reported in the article, “It's Not Your Grandfather's NIB Anymore,” that NIB is pushing forward vigorously with four specific management training programs. In 2003 a two-year Fellowship for Business Leadership program was established; in 2005 twenty-eight future blind leaders graduated from an eighteen-month management training program developed and delivered for NIB by the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia; there is a new Leadership at All Levels program; and a new distance-learning program was inaugurated in 2006. (For additional information see my February 2007 article.)
Because of these new initiatives, numerous blind workers have already moved up into management and supervision. Some 4,600 blind workers are now in the entire AbilityOne Program, and as of February of this year, eight blind people have become CEOs of NIB-associated agencies.
Additional, positive change in the program became inevitable in 2008 when President Bush appointed a new member, Mr. Neil Romano, to represent the Department of Labor on the President's Committee. Mr. Romano was immediately keenly interested in improving the rights and conditions for blind or severely disabled workers. Before long a new subcommittee, the Communications and Customer Satisfaction Subcommittee, was organized. It was chaired by Mr. Romano and included Ms. Kathleen James, representing the army on the committee, and me. Within a few intense months we had drafted and finalized a new Policy on Best Practices for a Quality Work Environment for submission to the full committee at its January 2009 meeting.
The fifteen members of the committee are keenly aware that major changes have occurred in recent years to create more and higher quality job opportunities for the program's more than 43,000 workers, but they are just as certain that even more can be done. Therefore at its January 8, 2009, meeting, the committee adopted the new and innovative Policy on Best Practices for a Quality Work Environment. This policy had arisen out of the committee's vision statement, which holds that, "The AbilityOne Program enables all people who are blind or have other severe disabilities to achieve their maximum employment potential."
Because of this new policy, within one year each of our more than six hundred affiliated agencies will be required to develop and publicize its own business plan, creating a self-certification process. The Romano/James/Omvig subcommittee had determined that three fundamental human needs are essential in any program of the type we are seeking. AbilityOne employees should have:
1. "Opportunities to do the work of their choice with appropriate supports and/or workplace flexibilities, alongside nondisabled employees, where all workers receive competitive wages and benefits, either with their current employer or other community-based businesses.
2. Ongoing training opportunities that make employment with other community-based businesses possible, by teaching job skills and social skills, as well as promoting the workers’ leadership and management potential.
3. A clear path to career advancement opportunities, which details what opportunities are available and the steps the worker must accomplish to achieve promotion in a reasonable time period."
This new policy is not intended to be merely window-dressing. The committee expects NIB, NISH, and each of our associated agencies to get at it with vigor, and they have. Because of this new policy it will not be long until the average blind or severely disabled worker around the country will experience a new working environment and greater opportunity for the future than was ever available before. And there is one last exciting piece of news: a new AbilityOne executive director has been hired by the committee. She is Ms. Tina Ballard. She comes from the army, and she is highly qualified, spirited, and full of new initiatives with which to create thousands of new jobs for disabled Americans over the next three years.
So, is anything new in AbilityOne employment opportunities for Americans who are blind or severely disabled? The facts indicate that the answer must be a resounding "Yes!" As Dr. Kenneth Jernigan so lovingly and properly taught us, "It is respectable to be blind or severely disabled." These simple yet profound words will soon be displayed prominently for all to see in the AbilityOne Program's Arlington, Virginia, offices.