According to reporter Julie Havlak’s most recent article in Carolina Journal, 137 optical factory workers – 76 of whom are blind – are likely to lose their jobs in Winston Salem this fall. Havlak reports the layoffs are a result of a federal court case, PDS Consultants, Inc. v. United States. Havlak explains:
PDS, a veteran-owned business in Sparta, New Jersey, sued for precedence under the Veterans First program… The decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit required the VA to favor veteran-owned businesses over nonprofits that employ the blind and disabled, otherwise known as AbilityOne nonprofits.
This decision led the nation’s largest employer of the blind, IFB Solutions, to lose its contract with the VA and announce its intentions to lay off many factory workers in North Carolina. According to Havlak:
The blind face a 70% unemployment rate. More than half of IFB Solutions’ blind employees had to move to Winston-Salem for a job, CEO David Horton says.
“For a lot of these people who are blind, it’s the first job they’ve ever had, and it’s amazing to hear the stories of hope and independence — how people are able to start living the American dream and buy their first house, and to change their outlook on life because they have a job,” Horton said. “So, the idea of losing that job is just devastating.”
Companies employing the blind and disabled have been on the list of the government’s preferred providers for a while. However, about a decade ago, veteran-owned businesses were added to the government’s list of preferred providers, according got Havlak:
[In 2006] Congress created the Veterans First Contracting Program to help veterans start small businesses. To qualify, a veteran must have majority ownership of the business, but they aren’t required to employ other veterans.
That change has caused some ambiguity as to which companies the government should contract out with:
“There was uncertainty because Congress did not do its job properly and spell out who got preference over the other. The question was left open,” said Cato Institute Senior Fellow Walter Olson. “Short of going up to the Supreme Court, which only takes a small share of the cases assigned to it, the ball has landed in Congress. Congress would be the one to have to say that the disabled workforce has gotten a bad shake and needs more consideration.”
According to Havlak, the company plans to petition the Supreme Court in September.