In the recesses of a red-brick building in a low-income corner of Baltimore, Ron Metenyi feeds rows of legal pads into a noisy machine. As the 55-year-old "stitcher" from Northern Virginia presses two red buttons, a metal rod clangs down and shoots staples through the pads, which are destined for the desks of government workers.
Fifty miles away, at a General Services Administration supply center in Franconia, Thomas Luca, 37, works the phones, taking orders for office products such as the ones Metenyi makes.
The two men, both blind, are part of a chain of production and sales that is facing an uncertain future. The GSA wants to revamp its procurement system, and government purchasing agents are drifting away from a long-standing legal requirement to buy products made by the blind in so-called sheltered workshops--a system some criticize as anachronistic and in need of reform.
Metenyi and Luca are lucky, in a way. For the moment, at least, they have jobs. An estimated 350,000 blind Americans--70 percent of the working-age blind--do not. And some who do toil in sheltered workshops are paid less than minimum wage because of a little-known exemption in federal labor law intended to promote employment of the blind.
More than 60 years after that law was passed, advocates for the blind and those who employ them, including groups that have been feuding for years, are to convene in Washington tomorrow to discuss job and wage issues. They hope to bridge their differences over subminimum wages, which some say demean and exploit workers but others insist are necessary, especially for those with multiple disabilities.
"We hope to get everyone on the same page to put solutions in place," said Jim Gibbons, head of the Alexandria-based National Industries for the Blind.
Congress, too, is taking an interest. A bipartisan House group wants to mandate a federal study next year on the impact of ending subminimum wages for the blind.
About 5,000 blind or visually impaired people work in shops that turn out goods--mostly office and cleaning products--for the federal government, military and private sector. Since 1938, the government has been required to buy certain products made by blind workers; in 1971, the law was expanded to include products made by others with severe disabilities.
U.S. labor law allows their nonprofit employers to pay "commensurate wages" based on productivity, a formula that often falls well below the federal minimum of $5.15 an hour. Nationally, nearly 6,300 workshops employing more than 391,000 people (the blind as well as the severely disabled) are authorized to pay commensurate wages, according to the Labor Department, but it cannot say how many workers actually receive subminimum pay.
Luca and Metenyi, like other blind workers in the Washington area, are paid more than the minimum wage. Metenyi's boss, in fact, says he "wouldn't be able to sleep at night" if he paid less. Elsewhere, though, and especially in the South, the picture is bleaker.
In Jackson, Miss., blind worker Bill Allison, 77, has been getting subminimum wages (currently $3.26 an hour) for eight years. "It's just like slavery," said Allison, who makes plastic flatware, "only we're free to go home after work."
According to Gibbons, blind workers account for fewer than 250 of the thousands who are legally paid subminimum wages. The others have more serious disabilities such as severe retardation and work for agencies such as Fairfax Opportunities Unlimited, a Northern Virginia nonprofit organization. Most of the 130 people in its paper-handling work program are paid 20 to 30 percent of the minimum wage, said Janet Samuelson, the group's president. Without subminimum wages, they would be unemployed, she said.
While recognizing that such exemptions may be needed for the severely disabled, the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind wants to abolish subminimum wages for blind workers and promote the hiring of blind managers. James Gashel, the federation's director of governmental affairs, likens sheltered workshops to "plantations" where the blind are exploited doing menial labor while sighted managers reap comfortable incomes.
Not everyone agrees that change is the best course, however. Carl Augusto, president of the American Foundation for the Blind, an advocacy group based in New York, worries that tinkering with the law could lead to wide-scale layoffs.
It was the specter of layoffs that recently focused attention on workshops and wages for blind workers. The GSA, updating its procurement system, recently announced that it was closing eight supply centers, including the one where Thomas Luca works. At the end of September, he was laid off with a half-dozen others when GSA ended its contract with Virginia Industries for the Blind.
After an outcry from union officials and others, who estimated that 1,400 blind and 2,000 government workers were at risk, the GSA renewed its contract on a month-to-month basis for a year. For now, Luca and his colleagues have their jobs back.
"I'm glad to get back to work. I just wish I knew for how long," said Luca, who is legally blind from eye disease and counts on his $25,000-a-year job to support his fiancee and seven children. "I'll be grateful to get by the holidays. All I can do is keep going to work . . . and hope it's another day of earnings for my family."
As a result of the GSA shakeup, orders fell off sharply in some workshops, leading employers to lay off help or cut back hours.
Frederick J. Puente, president of the nonprofit Blind Industries and Services of Maryland, which employs Metenyi, resisted letting any of his 49 workshop employees go, even though his GSA business dropped 20 percent.
All of Puente's workers are paid more than the minimum wage, though some recall jobs where they made less. Metenyi, who grew up in Arlington and Fairfax and lost his sight to glaucoma at age 5, recalls earning as little as $11 a week with Goodwill Industries several years ago.
"The concept [of subminimum-wage shops] is that handicapped people need to have something to do," he said. "I think the concept should be that we're part of the general public and should be paid like everyone else."
An employee of Blind Industries for most of the last 30 years, Metenyi now makes $6.32 an hour as a paper stitcher and lives "very frugally," he said, shunning Social Security. "I never filed for disability. It's just a matter of personal pride." Although he has a college education and studied computer programming, he has given up on a better-paying job. He tried for one when he was younger, "but after a while I got discouraged," he said, "and settled into a rut."
CAPTION: Workers organize paper to be cut and packed at the nonprofit Blind Industries and Services of Maryland in Baltimore. Wages there are more than the minimum though some workers recall jobs where they were paid less.
CAPTION: James Anthony, who was stacking paper at the print shop, shares a laugh with Blind Industries and Services President Frederick J. Puente.