ifb

Joseph Tamborra process lenses after polishing in the optical department at IFB Solutions on July 30.

It’s disheartening to know that government contracts being filled by IFB Solutions Inc. — a Winston-Salem nonprofit that is the largest employer of the blind in the United States — may soon be coming to an end, a prospect that would likely result in the loss of 137 local jobs. It’s maddening to know that the jobs may be lost, not because of poor workmanship or an inferior product, but because of legal snares that have pitted one worthy group of workers against another. With the clock running out, we hope someone will find a solution that prevents the loss of these jobs — including, possibly, the Supreme Court.

IFB currently has three government contracts with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to provide prescription eyewear. The work generates about $15.4 million in annual revenue for the nonprofit group — about 20% of its total revenue.

And the contracts provide jobs for 137 of IFB’s 556 local workers. This includes 76 employees who are blind and 15 who are military veterans.

One contract was set to expire last week, but has been extended to Aug. 15. The other two are set to end Sept. 30 and Oct. 31.

The reason the contracts are being lost is because of a 2016 legal claim from PDS Consultants of Sparta, N.J., a disabled veteran-owned optical business that wants the work.

The legal basis for IFB to be a preferred provider of services goes back to congressional legislation in 1938 that gives federal government preference to companies that employ the blind or severely disabled.

PDS’ legal claim is based on the federal Veterans Benefits Act of 2006, which prioritizes disabled vets for their military service.

In November and again in May, courts sided with PDS.

We’re sure that PDS’ motives are the same as IFB’s — to provide livelihoods for good workers who might otherwise not have an opportunity. But there’s enough work to go around without depriving anyone.

The IFB jobs provide a livelihood for people who may otherwise have to rely on government assistance. They also provide workers with the same sense of pride and purpose that most workers receive from a job well done.

David Horton, IFB’s chief executive, has been working hard to retain these important contracts.

IFB plans to file a petition by September to the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its appeal. “We plan to pursue all available legal and legislative options to get this issue resolved,” Horton said.

Horton recently met with members of Congress, including U.S. Reps. Virginia Foxx and Mark Walker and U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, along with IFB employee and Navy vet Scott Smith, whose guest column was published in the Journal last Sunday.

“While the courts have limited (the secretary of veterans affairs’) influence over the issue, I’m keeping open channels of communication with industry stakeholders and the VA to find a fix,” Foxx said in a statement. “The procurement process shouldn’t be a zero-sum game for beneficiaries of the AbilityOne program and the Veterans First Contracting program.”

Foxx is right. If she can do anything to keep these contracts with IFB alive, she will have accomplished much good.

This situation may provide a good opportunity for all of us to contact our representatives, as well as IFB, to express our concern and our support.

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