Not-for-profit manufacturer serves those with special needs.
by Kathy McKimmie
The coveralls worn by the sailor cleaning the deck of the Navy's USS Enterprise are likely made at Gary's TradeWinds Services, a regional not-for-profit serving children and adults with special needs for 45 years. For 25 of those years it has carved a niche in providing custom contract sewing services, primarily for the U.S. Department of Defense, using just-in-time manufacturing processes.
You'll also find its hospital duty uniforms, including smocks, tunics, slacks and surgical trousers at Army facilities across the country. In 2012, more than 275,000 garments were produced by TradeWinds Industries, the facility's department that offers commercial subcontracting services to businesses and industries throughout the U.S., from contract sewing to packaging and assembly. It's most famous for its coveralls–comprising nearly 85 percent of its sewing production.
TradeWinds Industries is directed by Helen Rutkowski, a 30-year employee with four years in her current position. She explained that in the 1970s an existing federal contract set-aside program for the blind was expanded to include workers with other disabilities.
TradeWinds Industries works through the federal AbilityOne Program, and ships its finished garments directly to 22 Defense Department locations. It all began with bidding on one item, then being added to procurement lists due to its quality and on-time delivery, and now it's the only designated producer for certain items.
There's a contract requirement that 75 percent of its workers have a disability. “But our employees are an integrated workforce,” says Rutkowski, “with and without disabilities. They are all working together as a team to do the best they can to make the best pay they can make.”
Workers begin in the training program and are time-studied, per U.S. Department of Labor requirements, against a piece-rate standard. Full-time employees need to work at least at the 90 percent rate for a guaranteed minimum wage. Some employees go above that, says Rutkowski, and are at 130 to 140 percent.
There are 65 full-time employees in TradeWinds Industries–from cutters to sewing operators to material handlers to inspectors and packers, some on hourly wages rather than piece rate. But the number can fluctuate widely.
“We're looking to expand our commercial contracts,” says Rutkowski, who is preparing for a cutback in military orders that she knows is coming. TradeWinds has the capacity in peak months to produce 32,000 pieces, she says, and although a small percentage of its sewing is for the private sector, its marketing department is beginning to step up its efforts to expand the commercial side.
One of its long-time customers is the BP Refinery in Whiting, which has purchased custom coveralls and custom canvas pouches and tool belts. Some of the protective coveralls it makes for BP–that can readily be made for other industrial customers–are made with Tyvek, a lightweight durable material that protects from liquids, as opposed to other coveralls that can protect from dust and dirt. TradeWinds can make the coveralls with or without a hood that ties around the face and booties covering the feet.
Getting those new contracts is vital to keeping longtime workers on the job. The average length of service is 15 years, with the longest service at 22 years. With more than 20,000 square feet of flexible production and warehouse space available and quality assurance personnel performing incoming inspection, in-line inspection and final inspection assuring product conformance–TradeWinds Industries can handle the specific needs of its customers.
Prior to taking over her current responsibilities, Rutkowski ran the Sign Shoppe at TradeWinds, established in 1995. It produces a broad range of custom signage for businesses within the region, including banners, displays and exhibits, vehicle graphics, decals and magnets. Promoting its own design abilities, it advertises “your artwork or ours.”
In addition, it produces signs for internal use, and Rutkowski says one of the most meaningful is the banner that hangs in the sewing room declaring the pride of the workers that they are making garments for the U.S. military.