Employers of the disabled worry about the uncertain federal budget

Government shutdown threats and scrimping on contractor employee wages, affects people with disabilities more than any other.

Government shutdown threats and scrimping on contractor employee wages, those conflicts affect one group of working people perhaps more than any other. People with disabilities. Joining the Federal Drive with Tom Temin, with some of his current concerns, the president of the Alliance for Expanding America’s Workforce, Dwight Davis.

Interview Transcript:  

Tom Temin Tell us about the Alliance first Alliance for expanding America’s Workforce. It’s a group of companies that employ people with disabilities.

Dwight Davis That’s. That’s right. It was founded by five members that are part of the Ability One program. That’s a that’s a set aside contract program where we use federal dollars to employ persons with disabilities on service contracts, dollars that would have been spent regardless. But instead of going to some other type of for-profit business, nonprofits do this with the goal of employing a significant number of persons with significant disabilities doing federal work. And there are almost 40,000 people working within the Ability One program. The Alliance was founded to be a voice for the nonprofits in this space and other companies for profits as well to bolster section 501 and section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, to get both the Department of Defense and the federal government writ large by the contracting pool to employ more persons with significant disability. To engage the Small Business Administration, to see disability entrepreneurship as part of their socio-economic set aside programs, and also to modernize and expand the ability one program writ large.

Tom Temin And we should also say that you are president of one of those companies’ global connections to employment. And maybe just a brief thought about your company.

Dwight Davis Yeah, global connections to employment has been around for, oh, close to 40 years now. At 38 years, I’ve been I’ve been the president for a little over two, but we employ about 1500 people nationwide. That’s from Alaska to Florida, 14 states in the District of Columbia. Of those, over 1000 of those persons are persons with significant disabilities. We do everything from food service, custodial work grounds, facilities management and maintenance to information technology work and business administrative support for the federal government and commercial entities.

Tom Temin And how did you come to what seems like a pretty strong, abiding interest in this particular branch of employment?

Dwight Davis I got to say that as a career military person working it on and around, in fact, running some military operations, we had people that were doing a lot of the custodial work, even maintenance on some of my aircraft, and you’d never really know it until it came to the Ability one program that these were contracts that were set aside for the Ability One, you know, for persons with significant disabilities. And it just really struck me that the dignity of work should be applied equally to everyone. And right now, only about 21% of the persons with significant disabilities actually are working, compared to 64% of the rest of the population. And by employing somebody with a disability, we’ve had studies that it’s returned about $38,000 to the government in terms of not taking benefits, you know, Social Security benefits, not paying taxes, you know, and bolstering the economy by having to spend. So, focusing on this has been something that I’ve become a little bit of a passion project for me.

Tom Temin Sure. And you have been speaking about the issue of the threatened government shutdown. We keep kicking that can a few weeks at a time down the road. And of course, it’s got every contractor spooked, you know, not knowing exactly what Congress and volatility will produce. But you’re feeling is that this threat or an actual shutdown or an interruption in appropriations would affect those with disabilities, perhaps in a more amplified way than other types of workers?

Dwight Davis Absolutely. Generally, a family that has somebody with a significant disability, they’ve done studies again, and it’s about $17,000 a year in excess spend the family incurs by having somebody with a disability. They may have additional medical needs or psychological needs, anything that would, you know, keep their life on a normal track. So already there’s a threat when you talk about taking those wages away. But another piece of it is the uncertainty. One of the ways these contracts are worked is that they’re very long-term contracts. That provides a lot of stability for the employee base. So having the threat that they may not have the ability to work, you know, adds a lot of extra stress. And then a lot of these a lot of these employees, they just can’t handle that kind of stress. And so, our team is having to spend a lot of extra time assuring our folks that we’re going to do everything we can to keep them employed, or at least paid while this uncertainty happens. But a lot of our folks, believe it or not, are considered essential personnel, so they would be required to report to work without the guarantee of pay. Now, speaking for my company, Global Connections to Employment, we would do everything in our power to keep paying them on a regular basis and their families wouldn’t suffer. But there’s no guarantee that our company is going to get paid. We’re a rather large nonprofit, so I can absorb a little bit of that, but some of the smaller ones that probably employ persons in areas where they’re the only employment option, they are not going to be able to survive a lengthy shutdown. Well, the last one was like 36 days. So, without the guarantee that there is going to be compensation.

Tom Temin Sure.

Dwight Davis It really does it really. Turn their worlds upside down.

Tom Temin We are speaking with Dwight Davis. He’s president of the Alliance for Expanding America’s Workforce and one of its member companies, Global Connections to Employment. And that points to one of the questions I had for you when you talk about people with disabilities. It’s not just physical disabilities such as, you know, paralysis or blindness, but also neurodiverse and people with intellectual disabilities.

Dwight Davis Absolutely. In fact, the bulk of our workforce are persons with either neurodiverse or have intellectual disabilities. So that is a population that really needs stability in order to perform. And we want to keep that stable workforce working with the threats of these shutdowns. That really does turn their world upside down. I can’t stress that enough.

Tom Temin And the other issue, besides interruption of work, is what people are actually paid. And a lot of the contractors with non-disabled employees are noting the fact that federal wages go up in the budget, payment to service members’ salaries go up in the federal budget, but there’s nothing to adjust for inflation of contractor personnel under service contracts in the budgets, and nothing that seems to be emerging for 24. Don’t know about 25 yet, but you are arguing that the Fair Pay for Federal Contractors Act would also help your employees?

Dwight Davis Absolutely. Well, first of all, just knowing that they’re going to be paid, that the work will continue or not, but they’ll still be paid. Like the federal employees, a government shutdown, the DoD civilians are still compensated. So, there’s guaranteed, you know, it may be a lapsed period of time before they’re paid, but they will get paid. For contractors that’s not the case. And once again, the bulk of the people that we employ on these contracts are doing the basic minimum wage work of serving food, providing custodial services, all of which is considered key and essential by the by the Department of Defense. But again, they’re on the lower end of the scale. They have less room to have the ability to absorb, you know, lengthy stay without pay. And another thing, a lot of them are on Social Security benefits that only allow them to earn so much money or had so much in assets set aside and still be able to receive those benefits so they can’t work, or they can’t have as much money in the bank as someone without a disability, so they have less to fall back, if that makes sense.

Tom Temin Sure, absolutely. And a related question that just came to mind is, as the administration, as the Office of Management and Budget and so on, OPM are trying to get more federal employees into the offices and therefore the offices themselves. The buildings are busier places in theory. Has that affected the demand for employment by the people that you employ, that do some of the custodial and the types of work that support people in offices?

Dwight Davis Absolutely. And in fact, demand has gone up, but the contract values have not. So, we’re trying to find innovative ways to help our customers realize the need to have more cleaning done. Just speaking to custodial cleaning done when they’re bringing more people back in the office, when things were more remote, our service levels went down and contract values appropriate. They’re trying to ramp back up, but the money is not there and there’s no stable budget to allow for that. We’ve had several executive orders that have raised the federal minimum wage that what we call a compression issue. So, the minimum wage for direct labor has gone up. Money has not gone up for the people that supervise them. That is a cost that is borne by the companies that do this work. And we’re all non-profits in this space. And so again, I don’t have a pile of cash reserves in order to be able to do this. And contract values are not going up and the budget is relatively flat if not declining in these areas. So really, again, back to stability to understand that a stable environment where we know we’re going to have payment so that these people can continue to do the work regardless of what happens with the federal government, the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and spaceman, they still need to be fed. Their offices still need to be maintained. The bases, the facilities need to be maintained. We also provide information technology support to the federal government for security background checks for the Department of Defense. We have people with disabilities doing that. That’s still got to continue. Those are critical functions, but not knowing if there’s going to be a paycheck at the end of that really does force these people into a really, really tight space.

Tom Temin Dwight Davis is president of the Alliance for Expanding America’s Workforce and also CEO of one of its member companies, Global Connections to Employment. Thanks so much for joining me.

Dwight Davis My pleasure. Tom, any chance we get to provide this information on a very small, little-known project like the Ability One program is warranted, in my opinion.

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