Tyrone Johns, 61, is a custodian paid through a federal contract that employs thousands of people with disabilities. During the shutdown, he is working two days a week. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post) Thousands of disabled people employed with the government through a federal contracting set-aside program have been sent home without pay because of the partial government shutdown, nonprofit managers who employed them say, raising new concerns about how the shutdown is impacting those least prepared to weather it.
The people affected include those with “significant disabilities,” including learning disorders, who may have trouble coping with the anxiety of losing a job. Some say they’ve missed rent payments and skipped medical procedures after their health insurance lapsed. Others say they may have to stop paying for medications they need.
The nonprofit government contractors that employ them operate in almost every state, highlighting how the shutdown has altered lives throughout the country. Workers, managers and advocates worry that the extended shutdown is threatening a federal program called AbilityOne, which designates certain federal contracts for nonprofits employing people who are blind or have other disabilities.
John Kelly, vice president of government relations and public policy at SourceAmerica, an organization that works with more than 400 such nonprofits, said he is aware of 143 nonprofits across 43 states that have been affected.
“We have more than 2,000 people with disabilities that were working on federal contracts that aren’t today,” Kelly said. “These are people who may have searched for this job for years, it really works for them and is a really key part of their life, and now they don’t know if they’re going to get that job back or not.”
The nonprofits affected include Chimes District of Columbia, an AbilityOne contractor that employs about 1,300 people, roughly 900 of whom report having a disability. Chimes executives reported sending 100 workers home without pay because of the shutdown. Work Inc., a contractor based in Dorchester, Mass., reported sending 29 people home without pay.
Tyrone Johns has worked as a janitor at the Commerce Department for 18 years under an AbilityOne set-aside contract, according to his managers at Chimes. Johns has weathered government shutdowns before. But he says the current one, now the longest in history as it stretches into its fifth week, has been like none other.
He is concerned he will not be able to pay for his blood-pressure medication if the shutdown persists into February, as his workweek has been reduced from five days to two.
Johns is caught in the middle of a protracted standoff between President Trump and congressional Democrats over whether the next federal budget should include billions of dollars for Trump’s proposed border wall. Numerous federal agencies have been partially shut down since Dec. 22.
“I don’t know why they keep doing this,” Johns said. “They just keep arguing with each other and that’s not right, because a lot of people are out of work.”
Some of those still employed have seen their hours reduced, like Johns, or have shouldered inordinate workloads as agencies try to function with fewer employees. Unlike furloughed federal workers , government contractors generally do not receive back pay.
Not all employed through the AbilityOne program are disabled. Under federal law , a nonprofit must devote 75 percent of its labor hours for a particular contract to “blind or other severely disabled individuals” to qualify for the federal set-aside contracting program.
Those employed on AbilityOne contracts include veterans injured in combat; aging workers suffering from diseases including Parkinson’s; those with developmental disabilities; the blind; and people who aren’t disabled at all. Their responsibilities range from shoveling snow in front of government buildings to inspecting military vehicles. Some are skilled tradesmen who can find other employment but many others depend on AbilityOne contract jobs for their livelihoods.
The biggest AbilityOne customer, the Defense Department, still has funding in place during the shutdown. But a significant number of them work at civilian federal agencies including the Interior Department, Commerce Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, which have been in a state of partial shutdown for a month.
Officials from the Trump administration and affected agencies say they are doing everything they can within the law to protect contract workers’ jobs.
“At the direction of the president, the administration is doing everything to make the lapse as painless as possible, consistent with law, and we urge Congress to do their jobs and quickly pass an appropriations bill that both opens the government and secures our borders,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
A spokesman for the U.S. AbilityOne Commission, an independent federal agency that administers the program, said the commission is “closely monitoring” the shutdown’s ongoing impact. An Interior Department spokeswoman said agencies are “taking all appropriate measures” to assist contract employees during the shutdown. Other agencies referred questions to the Office of Management and Budget.
“In complete compliance with all applicable laws, rules, and regulations, [Interior Department] Acting Secretary [David] Bernhardt is taking all appropriate measures to allow employees to work and earn a paycheck on time,” an Interior Department spokeswoman said in an email. “That applies not only to our full-time and part-time employees, but also to those that support us through contracts. We sympathize with folks who are experiencing difficult circumstances because Congress is failing to pass a budget that secures our borders.”
For the nonprofits that depend on AbilityOne contracts, the shutdown is stretching finances thin. New contract awards have all but ground to a halt at civilian agencies, making it hard to find new funding.
Some managers have vowed to keep their employees on the payroll through the shutdown by dipping into overhead, but it is unclear how long they will be able to do so.
"The smallest contractors are going to run out of lines of credit very soon,’ said Matt McKelvey, president of the government contractors’ consultancy McKelvey Group. “In early February you’re going to really see the pain on the contractors. . . . There will be no cash left.”
Jim Cassetta, president and chief executive of Work Inc., says he has been forced to send 29 people home without pay who had been working at an EPA building and the federally funded John F. Kennedy Library, both in Boston. Many of them have been out of work since Dec. 22, while others are using up vacation and sick days.
Cassetta says the shutdown has been a “double whammy” for disabled workers because it is hard for them to quickly find part-time work. Soon after news of the shutdown broke, he started rushing the workers to local unemployment offices to begin the process of getting them unemployment benefits.
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“Once they’re trained to do the job, they do phenomenal work,” Cassetta said of his disabled employees. “But they need to be supported; they need to deal with the anxiety of losing one job and being trained for another.”
One of those sent home from Work Inc. is Zach Weiner, who described himself as disabled. He says he has been waiting for his unemployment benefits to kick in after being sent home from his job in the mailroom of an EPA building.
Another is Yolanda Pagan, a janitor at the JFK Library for two years under contract with Work Inc. She hasn’t worked since before Christmas and says she wasn’t able to pay all of her bills for January.
She says she has a learning disability that could make it hard to find another manager who will work with her.
“It’s not easy for me to just go anywhere and get a new job,” she said.
Another is Ray Garcia, an electrician who helps maintain the JFK Library under a contract with Work Inc., and said he qualifies as a disabled person. Garcia says Work Inc. has been able to pay him during the shutdown by letting him use vacation days.
“What I’m doing is I’m using up my vacation time, and then I’ll use the sick time,” Garcia said. “Once I run out of sick time I’ve got nothing. I have enough to live for a couple of weeks and stuff … but soon I’ll run out.”
Jacqueline Dailey has worked as a clerk at the Interior Department in Washington for the past two years under a contract with Chimes. Dailey said she has been unable to work since Dec. 24 and had to delay a medical procedure because her health insurance lapsed when she was laid off.
“I was just in a nice routine and now that’s all out of whack,” Dailey said. “It’s like you have a family member you have lost contact with. It was so abrupt, and we knew there was a possibility the government would shut down, but this was longer than anyone imagined.”
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