By Charles D. Brunt / Journal Staff Writer on Tue, Apr 10, 2012
Fifteen disabled workers employed at Kirtland Air Force Base are losing their jobs because of federal budget cuts, and base officials said those reductions and others are necessary to meet the Air Force’s slimmed-down budget.
LifeRoots, a local nonprofit that provides services for the disabled, has contracted with the base for more than 15 years to provide telephone switchboard operators and custodial workers, said Kathleen Cates, the organization’s CEO and president.
Eight phone operators lost their jobs March 30 when the agency’s contract with Kirtland expired, Cates said, and the base has switched to an automated system.
Seven of LifeRoots’ 29 custodial workers at Kirtland are slated to lose their jobs by May 1, she said.
“This is part of the overall federal necessity to reduce discretionary spending,” said Col. Donald Conley, commander of the base’s 377th Mission Support Group. “The (Air Force) chief of staff is on record as saying that, in this economy, we have to make difficult choices. This is certainly one of them.”
“Unfortunately, these cuts are just a portion of the overall cuts that have been made across our corner of the Department of Defense,” Conley said.
Funding cuts have become common in recent years, Cates said, noting that LifeRoots contracts with the base have shrunk from $4 million a few years ago to $2.8 million this fiscal year.
Although she does not blame the Air Force for meeting its fiscal mandates, Cates said she sees a disturbing pattern in government budget cuts.
“I’m finding a trend, whether it’s federal, state or local agencies, that budget cuts are falling on the backs of the most vulnerable — the people with disabilities,” Cates said. “It’s very short-sighted because it’s not going to help anybody in the long run.”
Despite state laws that give job preferences to the disabled, private vendors are often able to undercut contract bids by providing fewer benefits, she said.
“This might help somebody’s budget in the short term … but I bet every one of those operators will go on unemployment, and half of them will be on SSI or SSDI before the end of the year,” Cates said “That’s not going to help the government.”
The federal Supplemental Security Income program pays benefits to disabled adults and children who have limited income and resources. The Social Security Disability Insurance program is a payroll tax-funded program that provides income supplements to disabled citizens.
Conley said ending the switchboard contract made economic sense.
“Of all of our service-level contracts here at the 377th Air Base Wing, this one appeared to be most eligible for monetary reduction by automation,” he said. “Because the equipment was already in place with our existing telephone phone switching system, we made the decision to realize savings in that area by automating the telephone switchboard function.”
Cutting custodial services, Conley said, is proving more difficult.
“There are certain facilities where we can’t reduce the amount of (custodial) service they receive, such as our child development centers, our youth center and our fitness centers,” he said, noting that funding for custodial services this fiscal year was cut by about $1 million.
“In some cases, we will be doing the cleaning ourselves,” he said. For example, the restrooms in the base’s headquarters building, where Conley’s office is, will now be professionally cleaned only once a week, leaving those who work there to maintain them between cleanings.
Conley said he’s hopeful some of the base’s private contractors will work directly with LifeRoots to continue their custodial services.
The Air Force announced late last year that it would cut about 9,000 civilian jobs nationwide in an effort to control costs. Wing officials said then the base would lose 82 positions, but that some of those were already vacant.
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal