A Louisiana nonprofit that provides jobs and resources for the blind says a federal policy encouraging suppliers to get products for U.S. bases in central Asia from nearby countries has led to major budget cuts for the local agency in recent years. It is calling on the government to increase its purchases from U.S. firms that provide jobs to the disabled.
U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Metairie, and officials with Louisiana Lighthouse called Monday for President Barack Obama to reverse that policy, saying it has cost the nonprofit $18.9 million in sales since 2012 and forced it to lay off 43 employees. The nonprofit’s manufacturing operations are used to support other services it provides.
Federal officials, on the other hand, say a reduction in the number of U.S. troops overseas has been the primary reason Lighthouse and other nonprofits have been getting fewer orders. Making some purchases in Asia has caused a relatively small amount of the total decrease in their business, according to the General Services Administration.
Scalise, who serves as House majority whip, praised the work being done by Lighthouse and its employees and cast the policy as shipping American jobs overseas.
“These are jobs that we want to come back to the United States, and this is something that the president can do immediately with a pen and his phone,” Scalise said.
Lighthouse has benefited from a nearly 80-year-old federal program that provides an advantage in winning contracts to nonprofits that employ blind or significantly disabled workers. But that program, called AbilityOne, has seen declines in recent years.
Scalise and Lighthouse President Renee Vidrine said the Louisiana nonprofit has been hit harder than any other in the program. They blamed that on a federal program that gives preference to suppliers in central Asia.
Monday’s news conference came as the federal government is preparing to expand the initiative for buying in Asia to cover more countries.
That program is aimed at reducing costs and strengthening diplomatic relations in the area, GSA Associate Administrator Lisa Austin wrote to Scalise in December.
“The preferences aimed to lower transportation costs for U.S. forces and to foster greater cooperation in the region — something Congress considered to be in the country’s national security interest,” Austin said.
In a letter sent to Scalise in December, the GSA said the withdrawal of the military from overseas operations is the main cause of the decreased purchases. A chart attached to the letter shows a dramatic decrease in the amount spent on AbilityOne products since 2010, but it also shows the drop was correlated with decreasing troop levels in the Middle East.
The chart does not include exact figures, but it appears to show a $100 million decrease during that time, only a fraction of which would be restored if purchases were made from AbilityOne suppliers rather than those in Asia.
Lighthouse employs about 150 people, almost 100 of whom are blind, in a variety of jobs in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Gulfport, Mississippi. Those in New Orleans, who have been hit the hardest by the policy change, work at a variety of jobs, including repackaging mess-hall trays and plates, and making and packaging paper towels that can be shipped to U.S. forces overseas.
Those operations have been hit hard by the policy change.
The Baton Rouge plant, which manufactures paper cups, has been able to market its products to private companies, which has helped make up for some of the cutback in federal purchases.
Norman Demolle, who worked on the manufacturing lines, said the job was about more than just getting a check.
Demolle was laid off from Lighthouse’s manufacturing operations but has since been rehired part time to help as a receptionist.
“I want to be able to come out and earn my checks,” he said. “It gives you a better attitude and makes you more self-confident.”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.