How the AbilityOne program is coping when agencies need fewer office supplies

The AbilityOne program employs people with disabilities to manufacture many commodities for the government, from military uniforms to those wonderful ball point...

The AbilityOne program employs people with disabilities to manufacture many commodities for the government, from military uniforms to those wonderful ball point pens. A big focus for AbilityOne is office supplies and furnishings. For how the program is faring with so much of federal office space vacant,  Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Kim Zeich, the AbilityOne executive director.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin And just review for us the fact that, I guess, the major customer for AbilityOne is federal procurement officers, the federal government, so that this is not a charitable thing, but it’s a way of helping the government and helping the people that you serve as employees.

Kim Zeich Yes, the AbilityOne program leverage is federal procurement to tap into one of our nation’s underutilized workforces. That is, people who are blind or people with significant disabilities. As you mentioned, we supply a number of products and perform a lot of services as well across the United States and federal buildings, federal military installations. And in doing so, our program provides an onramp to employment and the economy for individuals who are blind or have significant disabilities.

Tom Temin And a big product line has been office furnishings, office furniture and also so many of the supplies people needed, I mentioned those famous pens. I think go back to World War II, still one of the great items of all time in the field of writing instruments. But has the AbilityOne business been affected by the fact that since the onset of the pandemic, people’s offices have been largely vacant?

Kim Zeich One of the predictable consequences of the pandemic was the lower demand for some of the AbilityOne products. We know that the consumable office supplies, for example, were not being used at the same rate in fiscal year 21 and 22. But we are seeing a rebound in sales of some of these most commonly used products through the third quarter of this fiscal year. And historically, the fourth quarter is a spike in sales. So that will really determine the outcome for the entire year. I will say that our services sales have been stable year over year. Those tend to have fewer peaks and valleys, but we do expect to see a slight upturn at the end of this year.

Tom Temin Well, that’s good. And I guess the other product lines like military uniforms and so forth, would have been unaffected by whatever happened outside in the economy and the rest of it.

Kim Zeich Well, the Department of Defense is the AbilityOne program’s largest customer. And I will say that our sales and employment tends to rise as DoD purchasing rises. So I don’t see a significant impact in terms of the pandemic. Of course, DoD did get very involved in purchasing the PPE items, the personal protective equipment that were so critical and necessary at the outset of the pandemic. And that is one area in which the AbilityOne program truly surged. We had people who are blind or have significant disabilities working second shifts, even weekends at the start of the pandemic, to make sure we could get PPE to our customers.

Tom Temin I guess the obvious question now that we’re past all of this, were people mostly still in person working? Because it could be that the accommodating types of technologies or systems for people with disabilities may not have been replicated in their homes. And so during that period, they would still be working together. How’d that all happen?

Kim Zeich By in large, the AbilityOne employees never left the workplace. We have over 36,000 program employees. They have many of those essential frontline jobs that continue to be performed on site throughout the pandemic. I mentioned they took on extra shifts. They produced extra products. They also worked very hard to clean and disinfect federal buildings to provide essential services like hospital housekeeping, and really supported the continuity of our customers operations. I’m very proud of the way our workforce demonstrated just how committed and essential they are.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Kim Zeich. She is the executive director of the U.S. AbilityOne Commission. And recently, there were new, I guess, congressionally mandated compliance requirements for the AbilityOne, employers with respect to paying people more than they had been paying. What’s going on there? How are you responding and how’s that whole update going?

Kim Zeich The U.S. AbilityOne commission published a rule last year that would end the payment of subminimum wages on AbilityOne contracts. And the commission communicated in the strongest possible way that some minimum wages are not consistent with the values and expectations that we have for the AbilityOne program. I’m very happy to say that the implementation has gone smoothly. And as of Oct.1 of this year, we will have parity in minimum wages across all ability one employees. So it’s a very positive step for our program. It’s a promise the commission made and a promise the commission is keeping. And it’s also very important to our community. I’ve spoken with a number of employees who used to earn less than the minimum wage. I was just in Seattle last week meeting with some of our employees, and they understand what it means to be treated the same as everyone else, and to earn the same as everyone else. So it’s truly a matter of respect and equity.

Tom Temin And our commission employees, employees of the government in that sense, or do they work for contractors who are then reselling, in effect, to the commission and to the government.

Kim Zeich The AbilityOne workforce that is comprised of persons who are blind or have significant disabilities, they are federal contractors. They work for nonprofit AbilityOne qualified employers across the country. And then we have the US AbilityOne Commission, which is the federal agency charged with oversight and administration. And we are a small, what I would call a micro agency headquartered in Washington.

Tom Temin Got it. And the long term implication of people making at least minimum wage is that, if they have something like an IRA or any kind of savings plan, then their long term potential for taking care of themselves in old age is enhanced because they have more to put away.

Kim Zeich I’m so glad you brought up the financial benefits in the financial planning perspective. We’re working very closely with nonprofit organizations that are implementing and communicating about Able accounts. Able accounts, our savings accounts that people who have disabilities can open, depending on when they had an onset of their disability. And the beauty of able accounts is it does allow individuals to save more money and accrue some assets. And the savings in those able accounts don’t count against their thresholds to earn certain benefits.

Tom Temin All right. What else do we need to know this year? We’re coming to the end of a fiscal year. And as this airs, people are rushing with whatever money they do have in this end. But what do people need to know about AbilityOne, as we enter 2024 fiscally and pretty soon on the calendar?

Kim Zeich Yes, the AbilityOne program in a nutshell, is a network of responsive and reliable contractors who are accustomed to adapting and meeting the changing needs of our federal customers through a workforce that intentionally includes people who are blind or have significant disabilities. AbilityOne is evolving, we have a strategic plan and a strategic direction that places a strong emphasis on quality contract performance, competitive pricing, partnerships with industry, and also integrated employment outcomes. We’re partnering with a number of other federal agencies and federal contractors so that AbilityOne can also be a talent pool for them. And I would also add that next month is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Every October is an opportunity to celebrate the contributions of American workers with disabilities and to showcase inclusive employment policies and practices. So this year’s theme is Advancing Access and Equity. And the Office of Disability Employment Policy within the Department of Labor has some excellent online resources for those interested in learning more.

Tom Temin All right. And are those black famous pens still bestsellers?

Kim Zeich The black retractable pen will never go away. I’ve got a blue retractable pen here at my desk. So the AbilityOne skill craft products are iconic in the federal government and they create employment.

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