Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) visited Every Citizen Has Opportunities, Inc. in Leesburg on Thursday, where the nonprofit’s leaders warned him federal regulations could cost the vast majority of their clients their jobs.
ECHO helps connect more than 100 people with intellectual and physical disabilities in jobs at 16 sites around the community, and supports them in those jobs. ECHO workers can be found maintaining the lawn at Janelia Research Campus, delivering mail at Inova Loudoun Hospital, packing boxes at spinal surgery and equipment pioneer K2M, washing dishes at the Oath campus in Sterling, or washing buses and limousines at Reston Limousine.
But ECHO Director of Day Services Jessica Tagai said those approximately 150 jobs are threatened by conflicting federal regulations on programs offering “competitive and integrative employment”—like ECHO—that could strip funding for ECHO’s supported employment.
“What we’re dealing with right now is that the Rehabilitation Services Administration has interpreted ‘competitive and integrative employment’ to be settings within your normal community where you’re able to make the same salary and have the same opportunity for advancement that anybody else would, which is completely understandable,” Tagai told Kaine. “But the settings rule that says people have to be fully integrated is where we take issue.”
Although ECHO workers do go into the community and interact with the other people at those job sites, Tagai said when they are supervised or supported they may not meet the Rehabilitation Services Administration’s definition for integrative employment. That would disqualify them from federal funding.
“Individuals with disabilities … in order to receive that service, and in order for us to be paid for that service, have to be in a setting that is a normal work environment, where they have total interactions with individuals without disabilities,” Tagai said.
That also conflicts with another federal venture, the AbilityOne program, which employs people with disabilities to provide goods and services for the federal government. Tagai said AbilityOne contracts require that at least 75 percent of their employees have significant disabilities.
“ECHO will lose that contract, and those individuals will lose those jobs, and they’re enjoying their jobs,” Tagai said. “They’re out in the community working with other individuals that they enjoy interacting with … They’re making a salary that allows them to participate in their community and have a high quality of life, and they’re going to lose their job.”
“In pursuit of the perfect, they’re destroying the good,” said ECHO CEO Paul Donahue Jr. “And it would be really outrageous if these AbilityOne jobs went away.”
After his meeting with ECHO leadership and a tour of their facility—which also includes medical support and training for people with disabilities, along with a mailroom that employs some ECHO workers and is threatened by the regulatory conflict—Kaine said he would have his policy team look into the issue, and can talk with federal officials at agencies like the Rehabilitation Services Administration and the Department of Education.
As a member of the Armed Services Committee, Kaine said he may also be able to win more Department of Defense contracts for AbilityOne workers.
“The dignity of a paycheck is wonderful thing, but also that provides a stability that’s also really good for peoples’ quality of life and happiness,” Kaine said. “And if that is jeopardized, it’s not just about the employment. It’s also about quality of life and happiness, it’s about the ability of a program like ECHO to continue to serve.”