Billions of dollars’ worth of contracts flow through the government every year, yet top awardees often remain the same each cycle, with some shuffle in the order: Lockheed, Raytheon, Boeing, to name a few.

Pare away the defense giants and you’ll find a few that are unexpected. Goodwill Industries, which operates more than 3,000 retail stores that sell used clothing and household items and use the funds for job training for people with disabilities, and hundreds of other local nonprofits work on federal contracts to supply goods and services to the government.

This supply undercurrent is made possible by the AbilityOne program, an employment initiative dating back to the 1930s that supplements large-scale federal procurement with essential items supplied by some 450 nonprofits. The program, which predates the Biden administration’s commitment to equitable procurement by more than 80 years, plays a supporting role in uplifting small businesses and employing historically disadvantaged workers.

“Increasing federal, state, and local contracting opportunities with underserved businesses not only helps more Americans realize their entrepreneurial dreams, but also narrows persistent wealth disparities among groups that have long faced economic barrier,” said President Joe Biden in an address on July 26.

Many AbilityOne workers who produce goods or perform services experience impaired vision or other disabilities. Across the country, only 44% of people who are blind or visually impaired are employed, compared with 79% of those without disabilities, according to the American Foundation for the Blind.

AbilityOne is a recruitment program to bridge that gap. It leverages federal dollars to do so.

Here’s how it works:

What is AbilityOne?

AbilityOne employs 42,000 workers, including nearly 7,000 veterans through its nonprofits, creating a major supply of goods and services that help stock and clean federal offices, outfit military service members and maintain government grounds.

It’s also one of the largest sources of employment in the United States for people who are blind or have disabilities.

The program’s public-private structure is led by the U.S. AbilityOne Commission, which includes 15 part-time presidentially-appointed members and 35 staff and is maintained as an independent federal agency.

When the government has a need for an item or service, Federal Acquisition Regulation requires it to purchase from AbilityOne if it offers it. Agencies buy from a procurement list, which is like a digital catalog.

Nonprofit agencies generally contract directly with the federal agency to provide products or services.

In turn, a purchase from this list can directly employees workers who have a disability while creating a long-term supplier relationship that can eliminate the need to re-compete on a contract.

Program growth

In fiscal year 2021, nearly $4 billion of AbilityOne products and services were supplied to the federal government, a small fraction of overall dollars.

However, the program is expected to grow purchases by 50% in the coming years.

The Office of Federal Procurement Policy within the White House is one catalyst for this projected growth, recommending each agency commit to pledging portions of its spending to the program.

So far, the program’s largest customer is the Department of Defense, which annually procures more than $2.1 billion of AbilityOne products and services. An estimated 25,000 AbilityOne employees work on defense contracts.

The General Services Administration leads participation among civilian agencies, accounting for roughly 10% of AbilityOne sales.

The other growth spurt may come from the work of a number of AbilityOne representatives embedded within agencies to advocate federal buying from the program.

So far, 13 agencies have pledged a portion of their spending to the AbilityOne program.

More than office products

Products on the procurement list range from the ordinary, like clothing and office products, to the highly specialized, like cold weather infantry kits and medical equipment.

Nevertheless, contracting offices have many priorities to juggle and fail to realize the program’s offerings extend far beyond desk supplies, said Millisa Gary, a former contracting officer and current AbilityOne representative for GSA.

“The program is moving into more knowledge-based offerings, such as cybersecurity, acquisition support, and technology,” said Gary.

One example is the program’s workers on contract close-outs, who identified more than $22 billion in unused contract funds to be returned to the Department of the Treasury since 2010, according to 2022 data.

Offerings have also adapted to the decrease in demand for traditional office products as the federal workforce shifted to telework during the COVID-19 pandemic.

New to AbilityOne, and emblematic of remote-work culture, is a computer monitor that is lightweight, portable and attaches to a laptop for on-the-go or in-the-field computing needs. The Defense Logistics Agency sponsored the portable monitor for addition to the procurement list.

Then, Goodwill of the Fingers Lakes, an AbilityOne nonprofit of 700 workers, partnered with Mobile Pixels Inc., a small business, to bring these monitor kits to the federal market.

“This new product is creating new work hours here in our organization,” said Joe Kells, director of business development for Goodwill of the Finger Lakes. “Quite frankly, it’s offsetting the loss in work hours in traditional offers products that we produce. That’s why we’re always interested in what’s next. We have to stay current.”

Under one roof, Goodwill of the Fingers Lakes produces a wide variety of goods, like laundry detergent, notepads and physical training uniforms for the U.S. Air Force and Coast Guard. AbilityOne also stocks base supply centers on military installations.

“A lot of folks just pass on by the building, and they have no clue what happens behind these doors,” said Irenesa Olmo, an employee at the Finger Lakes facility of almost nine years.

AbilityOne hand-in-hand with small-business

Small-business contracting goals can be met through AbilityOne.

DoD prime contractors can get credit toward small business goals if they subcontract with nonprofits in the AbilityOne Program.

Approximately 250 small businesses are part of the AbilityOne Program’s commercial distribution network.

Steady employment, service during the pandemic

While many business and offices shut their doors during the pandemic, AbilityOne facilities kept their lights on and the country running.

About 95% of AbilityOne nonprofits remained open during the pandemic.

“During the height of the pandemic, AbilityOne [nonprofit agencies] were our frontline workers,” Gary said. “They stayed open, they added additional shifts to meet the demand of personal protection equipment.”

Contracts for cloth face masks were awarded to AbilityOne nonprofits by the Army, Air Force and U.S Census Bureau.

Even as workers trickled back to offices, AbilityOne employees sanitized federal buildings, including the Pentagon and hospitals on military bases.

“Even through COVID, we still came in and we still had work,” Olmo said. “We got things done.”

“Us being curious, willing to get out in front of things, is essential,” Kells said. “We’re fortunate that the federal government is supportive of those types of efforts. And this is a direct result of that type of engagement.”

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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