Court ruling may help veterans but hurt the blind

WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR) — A court ruling requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to prioritize contracts that help veterans over people with disabilities.

That means current contracts benefiting blind workers could be stripped from the nonprofits dedicated to hiring them.

“We’re here to make sure that Congress does the right thing,” said Curtis Chase, director of operations at IFB Solutions in Arkansas.

IFB Solutions is the nation’s largest employer of blind and visually impaired workers.

“Most of them, it’s the first time they’ve ever had a job. There’s a 70% unemployment rate, so losing a job is devastating,” said David Horton, IFB Solutions president and CEO.

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Through contracts with Veterans Affairs, the nonprofit employs nearly 400 people who are blind in Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee. They make everything from combat gear to notebooks to eyeglasses.

“Our employees who are blind take so much pride in what they do for the military, the veterans,” Horton said.

But by next week, 50 of them will lose their jobs.

“If something’s not done and that continues, by October we’re looking at another 150,” Chase said.

This is all a result of court-mandated policy changes at the VA, giving preference for VA contracts to veteran-owned small businesses over competing nonprofits like IFB Solutions.

“Pitting one group against another, I do not think, is the right thing to do,” Chase said.

A lawsuit from a small business owned by a disabled veteran prompted the change. But IFB Solutions came to Washington on Thursday in hopes of convincing lawmakers that there are ways for everyone to have the jobs they need.

“There’s plenty of work within the VA,” Horton said.

So far, dozens of lawmakers agree.

Earlier this month, they sent this letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, urging him to keep all contracts with nonprofits that employ people who are blind or severely disabled.

Congress could step in and clean up the 2006 law that opened these contracts to veteran-owned businesses, but it’s unclear if that will happen.