Leesburg nonprofit ECHO closed its mailroom on Friday, clearing out the desks and stacks of paper that memorialized decades of employment for people with disabilities.
And if nothing happens to change a conflict in regulations, roughly 150 people with disabilities could soon be out of a hard-to-find job.
ECHO, which serves 196 people with intellectual and physical disabilities, helps connect about 150 of them with jobs at 16 sites around the community, and supports them in those jobs. ECHO workers can be found maintaining the lawn at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s 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, and washing buses and limousines at Reston Limousine.
But now, the longest established of those job sites—inside ECHO’s headquarters in Leesburg—is the first to fall victim to a conflict in federal regulations that strip the funding that pays for the job coaches and site supervisors supporting those people at work. About 20 people in ECHO’s mailroom worked their last day last Thursday as a result.
For an organization to receive funding, the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act requires that the employees to be placed in integrated and competitive work settings. Decisions from the Rehabilitation Services Administration have narrowly interpreted those regulations. As a result, many people who found jobs through ECHO could lose their positions, because they aren’t sharing a workplace with other, non-disabled people.
For example, said ECHO Director of Day Support Services Jessica Tagai, “the WIOA regulations have been interpreted to mean that no landscaping or janitorial work crews will be considered integrated. So that’s the grounds keeping, the FAA contract—because by its nature, it’s not going to be considered integrated under the law.”
Federal contracts, such as maintaining the grounds at the Federal Aviation Administration’s facility in Leesburg, are particularly vulnerable. Those contracts require that at least 75 percent of working hours are done by people who are blind or significantly disabled—while the WIOA regulation simultaneously requires that they work in the same workplace as the rest of the FAA’s employees.
Those jobs haven’t gone away yet. But they could at any time, said ECHO Executive Director Paul Donohue.
“In a perfect world, everybody with a disability, no matter how severe, would have a fully integrated, competitive job,” Donohue said. “Unfortunately, in pursuit of that perfect goal, it’s my opinion that a lot of the good is being destroyed.”
The federal funding in question doesn’t go directly to ECHO. Instead, it goes to the individuals with disabilities, and they or their family can choose to use it toward supported employment through ECHO. The funding then goes to help pay for job coaches or site supervisors.
The mailroom was a place where some of ECHO’s clients with the most severe disabilities could earn a paycheck.
“Sometimes there’s behavioral issues that just won’t work at somebody else’s worksite, so this was a nice answer to that where they could still be earning a paycheck and yet, we can handle those behavioral issues,” Donohue said. “That option is no longer something we can offer, which is really sad.”
Other people, Tagai said, benefitted from ECHO’s in-house medical assistance.
ECHO administrators alerted U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) to those concerns when he visited in February.
“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 at the time. “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.”
But since then, there’s been no apparent progress. Kaine spokeswoman Miryam Lipper said it’s up to Senate leadership whether to debate and vote on a topic.
“However, Senator Kaine has been talking with Virginians about the services ECHO offers to help shine a light on the program, and he will continue to do that as he travels around Virginia,” Lipper wrote in an email.
In a second email, she added as a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Kaine “Has been speaking with his colleagues since his visit about the issues ECHO has faced” and will be reviewing WIOA data that will be released over the summer to evaluate next steps.
“Senator Kaine believes persons with disabilities should have access to employment options that match each person’s skill level and promote economic self-sufficiency,” Lipper wrote.
Meanwhile, people who worked in the mailroom have mostly had to fall back on ECHO’s day support program, and will no longer be getting a paycheck. ECHO staff members are working to convert what for decades was a mailroom into the new ECHO Academy, planned for a soft opening in the fall.
“It’s an opportunity for individuals who are interested in work to assess their work skills and interest, and to continue to develop soft skills and hard skills related to the jobs they might be interested in working,” Tagai said. With training, she said, those people who are able can prepared for competitive, integrated employment.
Other ECHO staff members will be trying to hang on to some of the contracts the company has, such as bus drivers picking up extra hours instead of those jobs being done by ECHO clients.
“We’re starving for revenue, so we’re not just going to walk away if we don’t have to,” Donohue said.
And still others are trying to come up with other sources of revenue for the company. It has set up a sister for-profit company, ECHO Ventures, to come up with new ways to funnel money toward the nonprofit.
“Eighty-nine percent of our revenue is coming from Medicaid or county funding. That’s dangerous,” Donohue said. “In today’s climate that’s very dangerous. If we want to stay true to the mission, we have to be more resilient and have those other streams of revenue.”
Donohue said there is also skepticism among leaders in his community support sector that everybody with a disability is able to work in a fully integrated and competitive workplace.
“It makes me a little crazy that in pursuit of perfect they’re putting the screws down and destroying a lot of good. And I think that mailroom was good.”