AbilityOne liaison Herbert E. Brown receives 2017 Special Achievement Award,” USDA

October 21, 2020; Government Executive

The bipartisan National Council on Disability has recommended that the AbilityOne program, a controversial program seen as being out of date with disability rights, be phased out over the next eight years. The program, born in the era of the New Deal, has long been criticized for perpetuating segregated work environments and allowing employers within the program to pay workers sub-minimum wages. This will affect the work of around 500 nonprofits that still make use of the 82-year-old program, which places them in a preferred position for bidding on government contracts.

A report published by the advisory group on October 14th expands on some of the issues identified as problematic by the Government Accountability Office and the program inspector general. Among its findings is that workers in the program end up getting “trapped” in dead-end positions.

The report cited data showing that from fiscal 2016 to 2018, only about three percent of employees in the program were promoted each year; in fiscal 2019, only four percent of program participants left the program for work in a “competitive integrated environment.”

In a separate matter, the report cited that despite a $626 million increase in sales to the government from fiscal 2011 to 2018 (reaching a record high of $3.6 billion), the number of employees working in the program decreased from about 50,500 to 44,000, and the number of hours they worked decreased from about 49 million to 48 million hours. The council noted it didn’t study the specific reasons behind this, but said this correlation “raises questions about how the program should be evaluated.”

The report concludes, “A greater amount of federal purchases through the program increased CNA revenue without resulting in increased employment of the target population.” The report goes on to name the old framework under which the program was designed.

The charity model was closely linked to the medical model and promoted the idea that people with disabilities were “tragic” and should be “pitied.” It was within this context that the Wagner-O’Day Act, the forerunner to the AbilityOne Program, and the FLSA were passed.

The council is advocating for the antiquated program to be phased out within the next eight years, replacing it with a mandate that federal vendors with contracts or subcontracts of $200,000 or higher ensure a given percentage of their workforces be individuals with disabilities.—Ruth McCambridge