A bipartisan state House bill would provide a revenue boost to two Triad nonprofit groups that serve and employee individuals who are blind and visually impaired.
House Bill 654 was introduced Thursday with Reps. Jon Hardister, R-Guilford, and Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, among the four co-primary sponsors. The law would go into effect Oct. 1 if signed by Gov. Roy Cooper.
The first committee hearing will be at 11 a.m. Wednesday in House State Government.
The bill would require all state departments, institutions, agencies and political subdivisions to purchase and/or lease goods and services from nonprofit work centers for the blind and severely disabled.
The two most likely nonprofit groups to qualify under HB654 are IFB Solutions Inc. of Winston-Salem, which has production facilities in Winston-Salem and Asheville, and Industries of the Blind Inc. of Greensboro.
IFB is the largest employer of the blind in the United States, with about 1,000 employees overall and 639 locally.
The nonprofit groups must have a work staff ratio of 75% for individuals who are blind and pay at least minimum wage.
Those agencies’ sources of supply would have to be approved, certified and contracted by the N.C. Secretary of Administration.
The nonprofit work centers would be required to “maintain the price of goods or services substantially in accord with that paid by government agencies for similar goods or services of equivalent quality.”
The nonprofit work centers would be required to submit bids and make offers to qualify under the proposed law.
David Horton, IFB Solutions’ president and chief executive, said Friday it is too early to determine how much revenue could be generated.
“By making a change to a law that already exists, jobs will be created for people who are blind across North Carolina,” Horton said.
“About 70% of working age adults in the country who are blind are not employed. This bill will put people to work in a segment of our community that faces multiple barriers to entering the workforce.
“We are thankful for the opportunity to break those barriers.”
Hardister said HB654 would help the nonprofits to generate additional revenue so they can provide additional assistance to their employees and communities.
“It can be fairly expensive for employers to purchase, install and maintain workplace accommodation for people who are visually impaired, creating another barrier for job seekers who are legally blind,” Hardister said.
Hardister said the two Triad nonprofits “have demonstrated that they are able to produce quality products in mass quantities and fulfill large-scale, such as orders for the U.S. Defense Department, all while creating opportunities for people who have a disability.”
“This is a win-win scenario for taxpayers and for people who are visually impaired. This will lead to more jobs, higher pay and great self-confidence for people who have a visual impairment.”
Lambeth said the actions behind HB654 are long overdue and are an effort to help some of our disabled citizens who just need an opportunity.
“This bill is designed to give them that opportunity ... and not disadvantage the state.
“These workers provide a good service and make good products,” Lambeth said. “This should help them stay productive and potentially offset some of the impact from federal contract changes.”
The federal contract changes cited by Lambeth represented a bittersweet regulatory victory for IFB in August.
A bipartisan U.S. House bill signed into law at that time by President Donald Trump allows IFB to again compete for production contracts with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Although House Resolution 4920 favorably resolves for IFB a VA contractual dispute that surfaced in November 2015, it won’t restore the 137 optical laboratory jobs it had to eliminate in September and October 2019.
Those jobs included 76 held by employees who are blind and 15 by veterans.
IFB said in August that while the law “will help protect existing, longstanding VA contracts held by AbilityOne nonprofit agencies ... it does not enable IFB Solutions to regain the VA contracts lost last fall or all of the optical lab jobs supporting those contracts.”
Among the changes was to exclude contracts that had been terminated by the VA, as is the case for IFB.
“Agreeing to the amendment was important to enabling swift approvals, thereby saving as many current VA contracts held by our fellow AbilityOne agencies as possible,” IFB said.
IFB said that “there is a possibility that the work could come back to the AbilityOne program should the VA not be able to qualify that there are two or more veteran-owned small businesses capable of performing the work.”
IFB said it will continue to pursue new contracts, especially commercial opportunities outside of the federal marketplace.
Since the ending of the VA optical lab contracts, IFB has shifted toward other revenue sources from new vendors, “mining more the ones we have now and creating new opportunities, like the retail store,” Horton said.
In March 2020, IFB opened its Twenty200 Eyewear optical store at 631 Coliseum Drive NW in Winston-Salem.