At the nation’s largest employer of the blind, only a skeletal crew of workers remains.
After IFB Solutions lost its Veterans Affairs contracts, the nonprofit lost 99 jobs, and the layoffs aren’t over in its optical lab in Winston-Salem. In total, some 137 employees, including 76 blind people and 15 veterans, will face unemployment.
U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-5th District, is trying to change that with House Resolution 4920, which would restore preferential contract status of Ability One nonprofits, which serve the blind and disabled.
“Nearly a hundred jobs were destroyed,” said Dan Kelly, IFB Solutions chief operating officer. “We did everything we could to make sure that they were taken care of … but it’s a big shock for some, and it’s not easy.”
The blind have enjoyed preferential treatment since the 1930s, but their status plunged when Congress created the Veterans First program in 2006. The legislation sunk the status of AbilityOne nonprofits below that of veteran-owned small businesses, creating what Foxx calls a “glitch” in the law governing who gets VA contracts.
IFB Solutions’ woes began when PDS, a veteran-owned business in New Jersey, sued for precedence under Veterans First legislation. A federal court ruled against IFB Solutions, and a federal judge denied its stay request, which would have let the nonprofit cling onto its contracts. The last of the three contracts expired at the end of September.
The situation escalated, pitting service-disabled veterans against blind or disabled people in the struggle for VA contracts.
Foxx sells the bill as a bipartisan compromise. It would grandfather in AbilityOne contracts that existed before 2006, securing their preferential status under law. All other contracts would be subject to the current status quo under the Veterans First program.
“All we’re trying to do is protect the existing programs so that those people won’t be put out of work,” Foxx told Carolina Journal. ”And then in the future, all of the preferences will go to the veterans.”
Each year, the VA funnels more than $110 million in contract spending to AbilityOne nonprofits. If all AbilityOne nonprofits lost their VA contracts, some 2,000 employees could lose their jobs, including 800 blind people. But the bill would save an estimated 65% of AbilityOne contracts, said Clark Rachfal, American Council of the Blind director of advocacy.
“Is it a perfect solution? Nothing ever really is. But is it a compromise that would keep the doors open of agencies employing and providing services to people who are blind and disabled, as well as blind and disabled veterans? Absolutely,” Rachfal said.
Foxx can’t predict how quickly the legislation will move. She hopes to fast-track the bill by putting it on the suspension calendar. The House sometimes bulldozes 30 suspension bills a week, but the bill’s immediate future largely depends on House leaders, Foxx said.
“The [Democrats] control the calendar completely. So I can’t tell you. Sometimes these things happen very quickly,” Foxx said. “It is just impossible to say.”
The bill has better odds of passing the Democratic-controlled House because of its bipartisan co-sponsors, said Wake Forest University political science professor John Dinan.
The bill could pass within weeks if it has that strong bipartisan support, N.C. State University political science professor Andy Taylor says.
“Normally that is a very good sign, if it has that sort of support,” Taylor said. “It could go through very quickly, there is no reason it can’t if it has bipartisan support.”
IFB Solutions says time is critical. The lab’s business has plunged to 20% of what it was six weeks ago. Kelly has tried to woo private business to preserve what’s left, but if the bill doesn’t become law before Dec. 1, he worries the damage would be irreparable.
If the bill passes, IFB Solutions expects to regain an estimated two-thirds of its business.
“The time to pass this legislation is now. If this goes too much farther, it’s hard to bring it back,” Kelly said. “The sooner, the better, so that people have that memory. … People will go back to their families or support networks if they don’t get employment soon.”
PDS did not respond to requests for comment.