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U.S. House passes bill that helps to protect blind workers

Some blind workers hope to recover their jobs in Winston-Salem.

The U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed House Resolution 4920 Monday, Dec. 16, when it moved to undo the damage it dealt to IFB Solutions, the largest employer of the blind. The bill would shield IFB solutions from Veterans First legislation, which required Veterans Affairs to rank veteran-owned businesses above AbilityOne nonprofits that employ the blind and disabled. 

IFB Solutions has lost three Veteran Affairs contracts, and some 137 employees — including 76 blind workers and 15 veterans — expected to lose their jobs at the optical factory in Winston-Salem. The nonprofit was able to save some jobs, but only 38 people remain in its optical lab. 

H.R. 4920 would grandfather in AbilityOne contracts awarded before 2006, protecting the preferential status of nonprofits that employ the blind and disabled. All other contracts would remain under the current status quo with the Veterans First program. 

IFB Solutions would regain two contracts if the bill becomes law. The bill heads to the Senate.

“We’re thrilled,” said IFB Solutions Chief Operating Officer Dan Kelly. “A third of the folks who come to work for us have never had a job before. So any opportunity to work and regain contracts and the dignity of work, which is so central to the American perspective, is a chance that we’ll lead.”

The bill is IFB Solutions’ first real victory in its struggle with PDS, a veteran-owned business in New Jersey that sued for preference under Veterans First legislation. The nonprofit has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, accused its rival of violating the law, and demanded extensions on its contracts. 

“It was rough, having to see your friends lose their jobs,” said Scott Smith, a blind IFB employee and a veteran. “[On Monday] I think everybody in my apartment complex heard me holler. It’s very good news. Now we have to take the fight to the Senate. I’m ready to see some old friends.”

The blind’s preferential status dates back to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, but they lost that status when lawmakers created the Veterans First program in 2006.

“I am sorry to say that this conflict exists because of Congress’ oversight in the drafting,” U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Illinois, said Monday on the House floor. “I wish this conflict did not exist, but the fact is, it does, and it still does. It has put the jobs of over 2,000 individuals who are blind or severely disabled potentially at risk.”

Bost called the conflict between veterans and the disabled a “false choice.” The VA spends more than $110 million on contracts with AbilityOne nonprofits each year, employing some 2,000 blind and disabled Americans. Another $5 billion goes to contracts with veteran-owned small businesses.

“A glitch in the legislation closed out programs like IFB,” said U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-North Carolina. “We want to remove that competitive situation for those who are already in the program.”