Sibyl Mikell has worked in the same New Orleans warehouse by the Mississippi River docks since 1980, one of dozens of blind workers who make the mess trays sent to U.S. military forces overseas — including her own son, who finished his second tour of duty in Afghanistan earlier this year.
This operation is an integral part of AbilityOne, a program that awards government contracts to nonprofits that employ blind and disabled people to produce basic products for the military. But Ms. Mikell and 42 coworkers were recently and abruptly laid off from their jobs at Lighthouse for the Blind in New Orleans because of a little-known change in federal procurement rules that encourages military forces in Afghanistan to buy from manufacturers and brokers in Central Asia.
The change was intended to provide a lift to allies’ depressed economies, but critics cite a lack of transparency and say the new procurement initiative is costing American jobs.
“The fact is, the people feeling the impact are the most underemployed people in our country,” said Renee Vidrine, president of Lighthouse for the Blind, who said the changes break both the intent and the letter of the law.