About 60 janitors at the Goddard Space Flight Center picketed the Greenbelt facility yesterday afternoon to protest their replacement by disabled workers under a special federal program for the disabled.
The displaced workers, who number 100 altogether, are employees of a black-owned District firm that had the cleaning contract for several years under a minority set-aside program from which the company, having grown large enough to compete on the open market, has now graduated.
"You can't lay blame anywhere," said Richard Tymes, president of the firm, Eagle Maintenance, which has a contract that expires June 1. "They're just caught up in the middle, and there's nothing they can do," he said of the janitors.
But Local 82 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents the employees, blames Goddard for not finding another solution. "When this program was begun, it wasn't about displacing people," said local Executive Director Jay Hessey.
The conflict between the two programs arose under a 1938 law that reserves one-tenth of a percent of federal contract dollars for disabled workers. To implement the law, an independent government committee looks for contracts for local nonprofit organizations that help the severely disabled find jobs.
Goddard had advertised for another minority firm, but then the committee decided the contract should go to the disabled. The committee's executive director, Beverly Milkman, said Eagle's ineligibility to rebid the job encouraged the Committee for Purchase From People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled to add the Goddard contract to its program.
Under the law, Goddard spokesman James Sahli said, the facility has no choice. But Hessey said, "People who've cleaned their toilets for 30 years deserve some respect, and we believe Goddard has the ability to have some control."
Nonetheless, Mellwood Training Center, a nonprofit facility near Upper Marlboro that trains and places the mentally impaired, was chosen for the job, and final contract details are now being negotiated. Under the program, 75 percent of those whom Mellwood hires for the job must be disabled, leaving open in this case about 20 slots for other employees.
Frank Ferron, director of Mellwood, said he hopes to hire some of the displaced, at Goddard or at one of its 17 other government contract sites in the area.
Eagle's Tymes said he also hopes to find jobs for the black and Latino workers, several of whom have worked at Goddard under successive contractors for 20 or more years. But he said he doesn't expect openings for three or four months.