Sixteen severely disabled workers laid off - U.S. federal jobs program gets sued.
Randall Love had been healthy until diagnosed with a rare spinal cord tumor in 2008. After a delicate surgery he spent months in rehab. He's much weaker now, has lost sensation over 60% of his body, and walks slowly and with great care. Still, he is a grateful man. "I can talk, I can think. And I can still contribute to my family through my job."
For another week, anyway. What happens then is fascinating, disturbing, and complicated. So pay attention.
The Set-Up. For the last nine months Mr. Love has been a Tier 1 Help Desk Agent for the US Department of Agriculture. He works from home from 8:30 am to 3 p.m., using a computer, phone and headset, taking technical support calls from Federal employees all over the country. He was hired by National Telecommuting Institute, (NTI) a nonprofit disability organization that trains and places people like him people with physical disabilities that prevent them from commuting to a central office. As a subcontractor to a company which currently performs the USDA Help Desk contract, NTI was able to fill 16 of the jobs and had hopes of filling many more. Randall's job not only lets him "enjoy the heck" out of life, but it also reduces his need for SSDI, the Social Security disability payments typically collected by someone in his situation. So far, this is a heartwarming story of a government program working as intended. That will change on March 27.
The Players. That's when Mr. Love and 15 of his severely disabled co-workers will lose their jobs, courtesy of what recent lawsuits allege is a long-standing pattern of fraud and cronyism within AbilityOne, the federal disability jobs program. Collectively, the lawsuits (one filed by non-profit Bona Fide in the United States District Court for the Southern District of California - Case No.: 14cv0751 GPC (DHB) and one by National Telecommuting Institute, in the US Court of Federal Claims - Case No.: 1:15-cv-00293-TCW on March 20, 2015) accuse AbilityOne and its adviser SourceAmerica of steering most of AbilityOne's $2.8 billion in government contracts to 20 large contractors, some of whom fill their jobs with people no layperson would ever consider severely disabled.
The "top 20" contractor taking the jobs of Mr. Love and his colleagues is Peckham, Inc. of Lansing, MI, a frequent winner of the lucrative contracts SourceAmerica controls. Peckham already has over 1000 AbilityOne jobs. They want Randall's job as well.
The Dodge. NTI claims in court filing that the evidence is Peckham fills many of its jobs with people who have slight or even no disabilities. Cheating is easy because AbilityOne relies on the honor system. A contractor, such as Peckham, vouches it has interviewed the applicant, and "judged" the applicant so severely disabled that they are "not competitively employable". That is the standard to meet to be eligible for an AbilityOne job. The standard was set high by Congress because only 28% of people with severe disabilities have jobs. This is the population AbilityOne is supposed to employ on these set aside federal contracts.
The Pay-Off. In return for taking care of their favorite contractors says Bona Fide in its lawsuit, some generous decision-makers at SourceAmerica count on getting good-paying jobs from these same contractors upon leaving SourceAmerica. It is perhaps not a coincidence that Peckham's CEO Mitch Tomlinson and others from the top 20 sit on SourceAmerica's NCSE Executive Committee or Board of Directors which works closely with the staff that awards the contracts.
Foxes Guarding the Hen House. SourceAmerica not only decides who gets the AbilityOne contracts, it is also tasked with ensuring that contractors play by the rules. Jean Robinson, the former attorney for SourceAmerica, in a recorded conversation with Ruben Lopez, CEO of Bona Fide, explained that in response to NTI's claims of foul play, SourceAmerica told Peckham CEO Mitch Tomlinson, that they were going to audit his operations. Mr. Tomlinson first demanded the compliance officer sign a nondisclosure. An exasperated Jean Robinson reports SourceAmeria's compliance officer actually signed the document. (Robinson also reports a "huge-ass shredding truck" showing up at SourceAmerica the day after GSA-OIG agents served criminal subpoenas there.)
Enough is Enough. In 2013 and again in 2014 both Peckham and NTI (the placement firm that trained Mr. Love's group) were finalists in the competition for the large USDA contract, which potentially would need hundreds of technical support agents. NTI's Executive Director MJ Willard was optimistic her nonprofit would win. The USDA had rated NTI as "qualified," and NTI-trained workers with disabilities were already performing well doing USDA work via a subcontract. Plus, NTI had independent proof of what some people believed was an essential benchmark: its workforce was more than 75% severely disabled, as required by law. 88% of NTI's workforce receives SSA disability benefits, meaning they've passed Social Security standards for "severely disabled." Peckham's Tomlinson, on the other hand, once told Willard that "less than 10%" of his workforce received SSA benefits.
Still, the contract went to Peckham. NTI appealed, saying SourceAmerica hadn't followed its own guidelines. And most important are the remaining questions about who Peckham is actually employing in its current workforce. While the AbilityOne Commission claimed repeatedly that SourceAmerica has verified Peckham is in compliance with the 75% requirement, SourceAmerica claims it is not their job to verify compliance. Given that in 2011 the CEO of NCED, another large SourceAmerica contractor was sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined $65 million dollars for lying about the make-up of his 4,000 AbilityOne workers, it's understandable that people might be nervous. No one is talking. NTI is suing.
"Suing the government was a tough decision," says Willard. "But when cronyism is so entrenched that we can't carry out our mission, our board decided we had no choice." She still hopes to win the USDA work. It is a rare opportunity, as it permits the use of home-based agents, exactly the kind NTI works with. NTI also has hundreds of additional applicants - with real disabilities - from across the country already trained and awaiting these kinds of jobs. When fully staffed, the USDA contract could yield 200-300 jobs for the kind of people AbilityOne is supposed to serve. "For that, we're willing to fight," Willard says.
Randall Love and his fellow workers hope NTI wins. They'd like their jobs back.