Schumer pushes to save jobs of visually impaired Southern Tier residents

By Jillian Marshall

June 24, 2014 Updated Jun 24, 2014 at 6:19 PM EDT

Binghamton, NY (WBNG Binghamton) U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer launched a push to save the jobs of 50 visually impaired employees who make paper goods and other supplies for federal government agencies at the Binghamton Association for Visual Rehabilitation and Employment, Inc.

Sixty percent of the employees at AVRE are legally blind.

Schumer said as a result of a 1971 law authored by former New York Sen. Jacob Javits, the federal government is required to purchase certain supplies and services from non-profit groups like Binghamton AVRE, which participates in AbilityOne.

The AbilityOne program employs blind and visually impaired people to make "SkilCraft" brand products, including file folders and cleaning supplies for the federal government.

The Binghamton AVRE produces copy paper and manila folders. In 2013, it produced 9-million pounds of copy paper.

According to Schumer, recent changes in how the federal government distributes and procures its supplies, sales of SkilCraft products manufactured at Binghamton AVRE’s AbilityOne program have dropped by $1 million in the last year, putting the entire operation at risk.

In recent years, orders for products for which there is a SkilCraft Brand option have not been fulfilled with SkilCraft products, as the law requires.

The General Services Administration, or GSA, is set to close its last remaining product depots, meaning all supplies will now be fulfilled by GSA-approved private suppliers, making compliance with the law even more critical.

"Now that there's private distribution channels, the GSA is not there to make sure our product gets sold to federal agencies who are putting in orders," said Director of Development and Communication Jennifer Small.

"It would be extremely difficult for the majority of us to find any other work other than AVRE," said AVRE production supervisor Luigi DiRusso.

Because of the changes, Schumer said the federal government must ensure it is complying with the law and purchasing products from AbilityOne non-profit agencies, since it would be extremely difficult for many of these blind employees to find a new job if the program is no longer viable.

"It is extremely difficult in today's environment to find employment for individuals who are legally blind/visually impaired due to the obstacles that sometimes we have to endure," DiRusso said.

In order to ensure the AbilityOne program continues to thrive in Binghamton, Schumer called on the GSA to develop tools and resources that federal agencies and government offices can use to ensure that they are correctly adhering to the Javits-Wagner-O’Day Act. Schumer also called on the federal Office of Management and Budget to require federal agencies to report annually on their purchases and utilization of AbilityOne products.