In an industry where employees seem to move on when something better comes along, it’s refreshing to hear a sentiment like this:

“I love working here. They can’t get me to leave.”

That’s Sharon Brown, custodian at the United States Air Force Reserve 440th Airlift Wing in Milwaukee. Brown has a severe disability, but she does not let it interfere with her job.

“Cleaning here is like cleaning at home. You don’t want a dirty house. It’s how you expect to do your job here,” she says. “Same as cleaning your house, but for 100 people who come and go.”

The 440th is a NISH account, part of the Javits-Wagner-O’Day (JWOD) program. NISH is a national non-profit organization that creates jobs for people with severe disabilities through the JWOD program, which is funded by the federal government. Employment opportunities include work in the foodservice, laundry, ground maintenance, switchboard operations and janitorial fields.

A history lesson
The JWOD program started in 1938 with the passage of an act that allowed people who were blind to sell mops and brooms to the government. In 1971, the act was amended to permit Americans with severe disabilities other than blindness to also benefit by providing services, not just goods.

NISH, formerly the National Industries for the Severely Handicapped, was started in 1974 at the suggestion of Congress who felt that a non-profit agency would be better able to serve the program without setting up a federal entity, says Paul Plattner, vice president of national office operations for NISH.

The JWOD program cleans only non-profit and federal buildings; the list includes national treasures such as the Statue of Liberty, the Library of Congress and the Pentagon. Instead of a building manager, JWOD works with a contracting officer when procuring accounts. Often, the contracting officer will contact NISH about an account; other times a federal committee appointed by the U.S. president, often referred to as the President’s Committee, will identify opportunities for their services.

In the past, there has been controversy from some building service contractors who say NISH steals business away from incumbent contractors, or tries to wipe out small BSCs. But Plattner says this is not true. The first step NISH takes once an opportunity is identified is perform an initial economic impact study. If the incumbent contractor stands to lose significant revenue over a three-year period, if it loses the account, NISH will simply turn down the contract.

The same goes for when the contracting officer wants to bid the contract competitively. Even though JWOD can legally take over the account, they don’t.

“You don’t build business, don’t build customer loyalty or create jobs for the disabled if you slam it down their throats,” says Plattner. “So we walk away.”

If NISH does decide to pursue an account, they, along with JWOD, put a proposal together. JWOD doesn’t bid against other contractors for the job, but they still have to adhere to a fair-market (not lowball) price. They have to pay the workers competitive wages and benefits.

“We have to follow all of the same rules. There is no relaxation of the rules,” says Plattner.

If the contracting officer doesn’t agree on a proposal, the project dies. NISH won’t force the issue.

NISH takes further steps to ensure the new account won’t harm anyone in the community. The President’s Committee writes to the incumbent contractor, informing him that the contract is being set aside for the JWOD program. NISH also must publish their actions in the federal register to let the public know what is going on. Anyone can respond to the news and a response could alter the decision. This process gives the incumbant contractor time to find other work.

Over the past two years, NISH has walked away from more than $10 million worth of projects. NISH and the JWOD program are not looking to hurt BSCs, but rather are here to help the disabled. And, when talking to some of the program participants, it is easy to see that they are being helped.

A Milwaukee example
The five-member cleaning crew and project manager at the 440th Airlift Wing cleans all but one of the base’s 33 buildings.

Tracy Coleman has been at the base for 16 months. Prior to this, he was unemployed. Coleman’s work has helped him manage his disability. The repetition of the tasks helps him produce consistent, high-quality results.

The job has also taught Coleman more about himself.

“The job brings what’s inside of you, out,” he says.

Coleman didn’t think he could handle a job, but working for JWOD has proven what he is capable of. Cleaning a building gives him personal satisfaction.

“I like to see people’s reaction to a clean building,” says Coleman.

Now, Coleman has learned to give more respect, not only to others, but to himself.

For Brown, working with JWOD has not only helped her deal with her disability, but also improved other areas of her life as well.

“It has helped to motivate me so I’m more independent, more responsible,” she says.

Proud to clean
NISH currently employs 36,000 disabled workers — a miniscule number, considering 70 percent of the disabled workforce is unemployed. Workers are referred to the JWOD program through each state’s department of vocational rehabilitation. With NISH’s assistance, the 440th contract was awarded to the Milwaukee Center for Independence, a local community rehabilitation program.

To qualify for a JWOD contract, 75 percent of the employees working directly on the account must be severely disabled. And these are people who want to work.

“People say they would never clean somebody else’s toilet — I say ‘why not?’ It’s a job. It shouldn’t matter what type of work you’re doing,” says Brown.

Brown takes pride in what she does. She is in charge of cleaning the entire headquarters building. It’s one of the largest on the base and also has high visibility.

Brown does not see the cleaning industry as a step below other jobs as many people do. When asked about this viewpoint, she referred to a line from the movie “Maid in Manhattan” where the leading actress plays a maid at a hotel: “What we do … does not define who we are.”

Not only is Brown proud of what she does, she’s also not afraid to work hard and do more if asked.

“I don’t mind taking an extra step when somebody appreciates it,” she says.

For example, a team of inspectors came to the 440th for the 2003 Unit Compliance Inspection. During a previous inspection at another base, the custodial performance was less than satisfactory. Because the 440th was in the middle of two major basewide construction projects, a great deal of extra effort was required to maintain their usual standard of excellence. Project manager Debra Rogers and her staff complied. The inspectors recognized the excellent conditions of the facilities in their reports, thanks to the outstanding ability and professional skill of the custodial staff that had exceeded all expectations. To show appreciation, Col. Betty A. Bowen, 440th mission support group commander, presented Rogers’ staff with a certificate for “Excellent Performance.” Brown was proud to be recognized.

The 440th Airlift Wing is only one of numerous NISH and JWOD sites, but the values and goals of the program are clearly upheld. True, buildings are getting cleaned, but the service is only what is happening on the surface. People’s lives are being enriched through NISH and JWOD. The aim is to help, not hurt, and that aim rings true.

Leaders in green
NISH and JWOD not only help the disabled, but the environment as well. The JWOD program won the first “Closing of the Circle” award for “green cleaning.”

Though not every contract uses environmentally preferable products, many do. NISH immediately established a partnership with the federal government to use environmentally preferable products on those accounts. It is up to the contracting officers to decide if they want to use green products or not, but it is in their best interest to use products that are less harmful to the building tenants and employees, especially when dealing with workers who have disabilities, says Paul Plattner, vice president of national office operations for NISH. A worker may not realize they are adding too much of the chemical, or may spill it.

NISH even provides training to non-profit organizations who want to use environmentally preferable products.

At the United States Air Force Reserve 440th Airlift Wing in Milwaukee, half of the cleaning products are environmentally preferable including the restroom chemicals and general-purpose cleaners. They use 100 percent recycled-paper products and even trash liners made from recyclable material.