PBA Industries hires vision-impaired

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Evelyn Nickel, 64, takes two buses and the T every day to get from her home in Swissvale to her job at PBA Industries on the North Side, where she uses a sewing machine to hem pillow cases, towels and aprons for use by the military, the state prison system and other institutions.

She's been partially blind and hearing-impaired since birth, but that's never stopped her from working. This is her 27th year on the job.

And PBA, the nonprofit manufacturing and assembly division of Blind & Vision Rehabilitation Services of Pittsburgh, is a perfect fit.

"I love it and I'm good at what I do," she said recently after taking a break from her sewing. "I'm not ready to retire. I'm not ready to just sit around."

Ms. Nickel is among 17 employees, most of them vision-impaired, who work at PBA, which has contracts with government agencies to make textiles, highway signs and safety products for construction, among other products.

PBA works with Pennsylvania Industries for the Blind and Handicapped and the National Industries for the Blind to supply the items to the state and federal government. The largest contract is with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, for which PBA produces all reflective road signs in use statewide for highway construction sites.

October is Pennsylvania Disability Employment Awareness Month.

Another large contract is with the General Services Administration to produce aprons for use by food handlers at military bases around the world. PBA just shipped about 3,000 of those Oct. 1, a day before the government shutdown.

For at least two decades, PBA also has assembled charcoal filtration bags for use in purifying the air aboard the Navy's Trident submarines.

"We're very diverse in what we do," said director Tara Zimmerman during a recent tour of the nondescript factory on Western Avenue, which PBA has rented for the last eight years.

The employees, who work from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., earn minimum wage or better and get full benefits. Nearly all have some degree of vision impairment that would preclude them from many other workplaces, but at PBA they have a role.

"There is still work for them to do," Ms. Zimmerman said. "They have skill sets like anyone else. They're very strong workers."

Ms. Nickel is among them. She said the public at large often assumes that all vision-impaired people are blind. While some are, many others fall in a grey area in which they have varying degrees of limited vision.

"People don't realize there's an in-between," Ms. Nickel said.

At her station, she can see the stitches she sews if she holds the fabric close to her face, but she works largely by feel.

"You'd be surprised at what you can do," she said.

PBA realizes a small profit every year, which is distributed back to the parent organization to defray the costs of vision loss programs, rehab and other services.

The nonprofit has long been trying to expand beyond the government sector. A decade ago, the former director said he wanted to make signs for construction companies or do lettering for commercial vehicles, although he acknowledged a limited budget prevented much growth.

Ms. Zimmerman, who came to PBA about a year and a half ago from Life'sWork of Western Pennsylvania, another nonprofit, said that effort continues today.

She said her goal is to double the number of employees and generate new commercial opportunities with a goal of exceeding the $2 million in sales PBA brought in last year.

PBA got its start in 1910 to provide jobs for blind people. For decades, its employees made hand-wound brooms for sale. The company still makes those brooms, but in the mid-1970s it decided to branch out into government contract work. By law, government agencies have to award a percentage of their contracts to companies that employ people with disabilities and vision impairment.

PBA added PennDOT as a client in 1990. Initially, a contractor silk-screened the messages for road signs and shipped them to PBA, where workers attached them to braces and shipped them back to PennDOT. Later, PBA bought its own silk-screening equipment and now does all the sign work itself.

Beyond its products, however, PBA's main mission is to provide jobs for people who might otherwise be unemployed. Nationwide, some 70 percent of the visually impaired don't have jobs.

To receive government contracts, a company has to show that at least 75 percent of its workforce is impaired. PBA is close to 100 percent.

"That's something we're proud of," Ms. Zimmerman said.

"This is the perfect place to work," Ms. Nickel said.

businessnews

Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-231-0132. First Published October 6, 2013 4:00 AM


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