As the last of three IFB Solutions Inc. federal optical contracts have expired, U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx has co-sponsored a bipartisan bill to reinstate the work.
Foxx, R-N.C., submitted H.R. 4920 on Wednesday.
A brief description says the bill would “reform laws for contracts with the Department of Veterans Affairs so that Ability One contracts held prior to 2006 continue to be eligible for renewal.”
For decades, IFB’s VA contracts have come through the act known as AbilityOne, passed by Congress in the 1930s, that gives federal government preference to companies that employ the blind or severely disabled.
IFB has been providing prescription eyewear to the VA since the late 1990s. The Winston-Salem company is the largest employer of the blind in the United States with about 1,000 employees overall and 556 locally.
In September, a federal judge denied a stay request that would have allowed IFB to keep one of its three optical contracts, leaving 47 workers without jobs.
The other contracts expired Sept. 13 and Sept. 30, affecting an additional 90 employees. Of the overall 137 jobs, 76 were held by employees who are blind and 15 by veterans.
“Our free, prosperous nation enables opportunities for people of all abilities to work, and Congress has demonstrated its intent in past legislation to support such opportunities through the Ability One program,” Foxx said in a statement.
“Recently, it has become clear that those laws are in serious need of clarification.”
Dan Kelly, IFB’s chief operating officer, said IFB worked through the orders that were transmitted at the end of all three contracts.
“All of our VA work is now complete,” he said.
“The VA contract terminations was a devastating blow to our organization and employee community. While some of our optical employees found work in other areas of our organization, many did not and face difficult challenges in securing other jobs.
“This legislation will help ensure those individuals continue to have opportunities to work and lead independent lives. We hope Congress will move quickly on this legislation before any more VA contracts with AbilityOne agencies are terminated and additional jobs lost.”
Foxx sent a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie asking him to personally review the status of IFB’s federal contracts. Foxx said her letter has not been acknowledged.
A previous letter sent to the VA was endorsed by 33 U.S. House and Senate members, including Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C.
“I will keep pushing for its passage until these true models of perseverance can rest more assured of their jobs,” Foxx said.
The optical work for the VA means $15.4 million in annual revenue for the nonprofit group, formerly known as Winston-Salem Industries for the Blind Inc. That represents nearly 20% of IFB’s total revenue.
“We believe over time we will be able to generate other revenue sources from new vendors, mining more the ones we have now and creating new opportunities, like the retail store,” said David Horton, IFB’s president and chief executive.
Four legal cases have been filed in connection with the battle for the VA contracts.
One of the cases involves the VA as the defendant — with IFB joining as an intervenor — and the rival company PDS Consultants Inc. of Sparta, N.J., as the plaintiff.
PDS has provided visual products to the VA since 1998. PDS’s legal claim has been that businesses owned by disabled veterans should have priority over those from AbilityOne, based on a recent U.S. Supreme Court interpretation of the Veterans Benefits Act of 2006.
That act is also known as Veterans First legislation, one of the ways Congress recognizes and repays disabled veterans for their military service.
The VA said in an August statement that “per the federal laws set by Congress, the VA limits competition for contracts to service-disabled, veteran-owned small businesses in certain circumstances.”
“This is one of those circumstances. This concept was recently affirmed by the Supreme Court in a ruling that Congress also supported in an amicus brief.”
Dan Kelly, IFB’s chief operating officer, said IFB and other AbilityOne nonprofits around the country “have worked hard over many years to ensure that the AbilityOne program and the Veterans First Contracting program co-exist and serve their important constituencies.”
IFB is petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to review the federal appeals court ruling from October 2018.
Kelly said the U.S. Justice Department has requested, and been granted, another extension in filing their brief to Dec. 9.
“The Supreme Court, as its discretion, will let us know after Dec. 9 whether they will hear our case or not — but certainly we hope to hear late December or January,” Kelly said.
If it does, it likely could take the court 18 to 24 months for a decision.