02/27/2013 06:57 pm ET Updated Feb 28, 2013

Sequester Threatens To Push Disabled Government Workers Onto Government Assistance

In other circumstances, Darrell See could well find himself unemployed and dependent upon the government for his sustenance. A Navy veteran, he suffers from tinnitus, a hearing condition he describes as akin to"excessively loud whistles going off in my ears all the time." He can't sit or stand for long without leg pain. He has bladder problems.

Despite these ailments, See supports himself with a job as a janitor buffing and polishing floors at a military base in Huntsville, Ala., a position that not only pays the bills but gives him a sense of belonging in the world. "My self-worth is reflected in the floors that I clean," he said.

But now his job is under direct threat from the automatic federal spending cuts that are set to take effect next month absent a last-minute deal between Congress and the White House. Those cuts, known as the sequester, would slash $85 billion from the budget this year, with defense programs and assistance for the poor taking the hardest hit. On the line is more than the pace of economic growth or the prospect of another increase in the unemployment rate: At stake is the ability of disabled people like See to earn their own living and pay their own bills rather than securing government assistance -- ultimately at much greater cost to American taxpayers.

Losing a job is a traumatic event for almost everyone, but for workers with severe mental or physical disabilities, there are often simply no other employment opportunities. Depression, and further isolation from the community, often follow. But there is another reason aside from the humanitarian one to keep these people on the payroll, economists and labor experts say: It makes sound economic sense to do so.

See works for Phoenix, a company with 750 employees in Huntsville, a North Alabama city that is home to Redstone Arsenal and hundreds of defense contractors. Phoenix fills a special niche. More than 80 percent of the employees have a severe mental or physical disability. It is affiliated with a program called AbilityOne, which helps more than 600 non-profit companies with more than 50,000 disabled employees win government contracts.

These workers save the federal government an average of $4,657 per year in reduced or eliminated disability and healthcare benefits, according to the organization.

Under federal law, any employer with a government contract worth $10,000 or more is required to take steps to hire and promote qualified individuals with disabilities. These workers scrub floors, mow lawns, clean bathrooms, serve meals and launder clothes.

"We work with the most vulnerable people," said Paul Atkinson, the chief executive officer at Eggleston Services, a not-for-profit contracting company in the Hampton Roads, Va. area with about 650 employees. "They sit at the margins in terms of employability."

All told, more than 70 percent of disabled workers are unemployed, according to the Department of Labor.

The threat of job loss now as part of the sequester follows four years of serious decline in employment for disabled American workers, who lost jobs at three times the rate of the general population during the recession, according to John Butterworth, the director of employment systems change at the Institute for Community Inclusion. Even as all Americans face ripple effects from the across-the-board cuts -- from bartenders to battleship builders -- experts are concerned that workers with disabilities will fare even worse than others.

“Whenever there is an economic downturn they are the first to be lost and last to be reabsorbed," said Susanne Bruyère, director of the Employment and Disability Institute at Cornell University.

Between 2008 and 2011, the employment rate for disabled Americans dropped from 39.5 percent to 33.4 percent. That drop is sharply mirrored in other statistics: During the same time period, the number of disabled Americans living below the poverty line and collecting federal disability increased by hundreds of thousands of people, according to data calculated by the Cornell institute using U.S. Census Bureau data.

Like nearly everything else sequester-related, its not yet clear what will happen at the contracting companies Phoenix and Eggleston.

Atkinson, Eggleston's chief executive, said that officials at nearby Naval Station Norfolk recently asked him to work out a budgeting plan his company would follow if its contract to cook and serve roughly 20,000 meals a day at the base, which is home to the eastern headquarters for the U.S. fleet, were cut by 20 to 25 percent. One possibility: boxed meals instead of a hot dinner service in the evenings. If that happens, Atkinson would be forced to cut staff hours and lay off workers, he said.

Bryan Dodson, the president of Phoenix, said that if sequester cuts go into effect, he could be forced to lay off more than 100 employees, including some of the workers who manufacture the American flags that the military uses for burials and drapes across coffins of fallen servicemen and women.

"I get madder than hell thinking about good hard-working folks losing their jobs because Congress can't make up its mind," he said.