The Blitz, Summer, 2020
The Blitz, Summer, 2020
2020 Summer Edition
These are crazy times for all of us. The last few months have been like no other in our history. If you are a blind entrepreneur and reading this, you are probably shutdown or struggling with greatly reduced sales and curtailed profits. If you are an SLA staff member, you are probably reading this from your home as most state offices remain closed. The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a serious blow to the abilities of blind people to earn a living and to state agencies who support the program. Through it all, we continue to work for the betterment of the program and for all of our blind entrepreneurs. It is a daunting task but we continue to do our part to move forward. If you are standing still or going backwards, you are dying. This program means too much to too many to let it die. So, what are we doing? What’s going on out there? Here’s our mid summer update.
Industry Person of the Year – We start with some exciting news! NABM is so proud of our President Nicky Gacos who was recently honored by the National Automatic Merchandising Association as its Industry Person of the Year. This is the highest honor given each year by NAMA to an industry professional. Gacos was recognized for his hard work as a successful businessperson and for his contributions to the public good. NABM is mentioned prominently in the press release which you can read by going to https://www.namanow.org/nama-announces-2020-industry-person-of-the-year-nicky-gacos/ . Gacos has done remarkable things for the Randolph-Sheppard community and for the National Federation of the Blind but his greatest contributions have been the relationships he has built to bridge gaps and lift up blind entrepreneurs. Congratulations Mr. President! Check out the video of all of NAMA’s 2020 award winners at
COVID-19 Delivers Blow to Our Community – The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be overstated. Our guys are suffering. The short-term impact to blind entrepreneurs is obvious. The long-term effect remains uncertain but the picture is bleak in many aspects. Teleworking is here to stay. The number of customers our Randolph-Sheppard entrepreneurs have to serve will never return to pre-pandemic levels. We project that the national program will shrink in size by at least 20-30%. That means as many as 500 business opportunities could go away. This is going to force us to rethink the future and NABM President Nicky Gacos and the Board of Directors are prepared to do that. All stakeholders will have to be involved in reshaping our future. For now though, let’s look at the situation we face and what NABM has been doing in the short-term.
Deaths – Unfortunately, blind entrepreneurs have not been immune to the Coronavirus disease itself. The impact goes beyond lost sales. At least 3 have passed away as a result. We’d ask for your thoughts and prayers for the families of:
Bert Hansen – Nevada
Bill Hallman – Pennsylvania
Kevin Wilford - Ohio
Others have contracted the disease and apparently recovered while another remains in very serious condition. Many other blind people have succumbed to the illness as well. All of them are in our thoughts and prayers. We urge everyone out there to take this virus seriously and protect yourself. Your health and safety must be the top priority.
Advocacy Efforts – As soon as the pandemic hit, NABM began to advocate for relief for the blind vendors. We set up a website that enabled stakeholders to easily send letters to their members of Congress. Working hand-in-hand with John Pare and Jeff Kaloc in the National Federation of the Blind’s Advocacy and Policy Department, NABM reached out to members of Congress and had conversations with key staffers. We were requesting a direct appropriation of $35 Million and two waivers – one that would allow SLAs to use federal dollars to restock vending facilities when they reopen and one to allow SLAs to use federal dollars to provide a fair minimum return. The good news is that the House Appropriations Committee has included $20 Million in the FY 21 budget for blind vendor relief. We are now focusing on the Senate. If enacted, the bill would provide approximately $11,000 per vendor to each SLA. We realize that is not much and will not come close to making up for lost income. But hopefully it will provide a safety net for those vendors trying to reopen with fewer customers on-site. Perhaps, a word of caution is in order here. It seems many vendors and SLAs are counting their chickens before they hatch and are already debating how the money will be spent. The message here is let’s get the money and then have those conversations. We also continue to advocate for the waivers as well and are still hopeful that at least the one related to inventory will be included in the next relief bill. At its 2020 convention, the National Federation of the Blind passed a resolution in support of this effort thanking the sponsors of the appropriation in the House and urging the Senate to follow suit. The full text of that resolution is attached at the end of this issue.
Virtual Training – NABM has taken full advantage of virtual platforms to bring training and updates to the Randolph-Sheppard community. We held informational calls on food trucks in the rest areas, federal relief available to small businesses, the impact of unemployment on SSDI, and techniques for sanitizing facilities. We hosted 5 90-minute BLAST LIVE sessions in June which were huge successes averaging 300 attendees. All of those sessions are on our website at https://blindmerchants.org/listen-to-blast-live/ . Micromarket certification training was supposed to be offered at BLAST in Chicago but we partnered with the Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired to offer it virtually instead over 5 sessions. These were very well received. If you want to learn about Micromarkets From A to Z, go to https://blindmerchants.org/micro-markets-a-to-z-and-more/ . At that same site you will also find the training U-Select-It did as well as previous NABM webinars on such things as SSDI and Active Participation.
And oh yeah, stay tuned for announcements for more training coming very soon.
Is VR an Option for Vendors? – In the course of corresponding with Assistant Secretary Schultz, the question of whether or not an Agency can open up a Vocational Rehabilitation case to assist blind entrepreneurs impacted by the COVID-19 virus. RSA did confirm that vendors may apply for and receive VR services as can any other individual with a disability. There are no special rules for the COVID pandemic. However, that does not mean that a VR Counselor can simply open a case, purchase inventory for a vendor for example, and then close the case. VR is not an entitlement program meaning the individual applying for assistance must meet all eligibility requirements. If the state is in what is called an Order of Selection, the individual must be in a priority category that is open to be served although there are exceptions to this on a state-by-state basis. The VR Counselor and vendor would have to then develop an Individualized Plan for Employment (IPE) which will describe the services required for the person to remain or return to employment. Generally, multiple services are required over an extended period of time so opening a case for a single service in most instances would not be appropriate. Training on technology, the purchase of computer equipment, updating skills required to live and work independently, maintenance, etc. are among the services that might be offered. But the type and scope of services must be determined on a case-by-case basis.
Reopening Guidelines – Both the National Restaurant Association and National Automatic Merchandising Association have released information about reopening businesses. To view the NRA’s state-by-state guide, go to our website at https://blindmerchants.org/sites/blindmerchants.org/files/2022-01/COVID-19_State-Re-Opening-TC-Requirements-Recommendations.pdf . NAMA’s guidance for reopening can be found at
https://www.namanow.org/voice/coronavirus-covid-19-resources/ . Both are excellent resources.
Hadley Entry Level Training Perfect Option During Pandemic - Speaking of Hadley, entry-level training for potential new licensees is still available through Hadley. Over the last 12 months, 37 blind individuals completed the training. That represents over one-third of all new vendors trained in the country over that time period. This is an excellent training option during this pandemic when potential trainees cannot travel to state centers to get trained. As things stand, many states won’t be offering training the rest of the year. Why not look at the Hadley training at least as a trial during these unusual times? The training is on-line but features a top-notch curriculum with an instructor. Today, even our kids are learning virtually. So can your vendors.
Virus or No Virus There’s Always Something Going on with DoD – It wouldn’t be a Blitz without news from the ongoing battles with the Department of Defense. Here are some of the highlights:
GITMO – For years, the question has been asked. Does the Randolph-Sheppard priority apply to federal property in foreign countries? Well, we are going to get our answer. The South Carolina Commission for the Blind, partnering with FSIG, wanted to bid on the military dining contract at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. However, the Navy is not inclined to recognize the Randolph-Sheppard priority. So, the Commission has filed for federal arbitration. There are some hurdles in this case but it will be good to finally know the answer. If successful, this could lead to more opportunities abroad. Stay tuned on this one. Kudos to the SC Commission for the Blind and FSIG for taking on the challenge.
Fort Riley / Fort Bliss – These two pivotal cases are in what we hope are the final stages. At issue in both cases is whether or not the R-S priority applies to all military dining contracts even those that are not full food or what are commonly referred to as Dining Facility Attendant (DFA) contracts. Both cases are in the Federal Court of Appeals but in two different districts. Therefore, it is possible to get split decisions. Oral arguments were held in the Fort Riley case in May. Like everything else in the world today, it was done virtually. Arguments in the Bliss case were heard prior to the pandemic and we are just waiting on the decision. We remain cautiously optimistic about these cases. Decisions are expected in both by the end of the year. A sweep and Randolph-Sheppard will be in strong position for future DFA contracts. A split and the debate will rage on. If we lose both, it would be a serious blow to Randolph-Sheppard.
Panama City – There is some good news in Florida. The Navy has agreed to directly negotiate with the SLA for its troop-dining contract at the Panama City Base where blind entrepreneur Alton Palmore teams with Blackstone Consulting. There is no guarantee that the negotiations will lead to a contract but the fact the Navy is willing to negotiate is a positive sign. We have always thought direct negotiations make sense for the military.
Fort Dix – In the last issue of The Blitz, we reported that the New Jersey SLA had been awarded the contract at Fort Dix. This was great news indeed. The pandemic has stalled the SLA’s takeover of the operation so things are in a holding pattern. Blind entrepreneur Frank Collepardi and FSIG are ready to go when they get the green light which is looking like September 1st.
Fort Sill – The arbitration decision is in and the State of Oklahoma prevailed. This is a great victory for the SLA. At issue was whether or not the Army could choose not to exercise an option on a Randolph-Sheppard troop-dining contract without it being a limitation on the operation of a vending facility which requires a determination by the Secretary of Education. The second issue was whether or not the Army erred by ruling the SLA’s proposal was not within the competitive range. The panel ruled in favor of the State on both issues. The SLA had been displaced and another vendor is currently managing the contract. The panel recommended that the SLA be allowed to manage the contract for the remaining option years and that negotiations take place to see if the bid on the new 5 year contract can be made to be acceptable. It remains to be seen if the Army will comply.
Fort Lee – In the last issue of The Blitz, we reported this arbitration looked like it might never happen due to all of the problems with the panel itself. Well, as it turns out, the panel may not need to hear the case. It appears the Army will be issuing a new RFP with a Randolph-Sheppard priority. The arbitration will likely be set aside pending the outcome of the competition.
RSA/GSA Workgroup Taking on Challenging Issues – This workgroup that RSA established last year has been active and is taking on some important issues related to Randolph-Sheppard facilities on GSA properties. The first issue was the new permit template. The permit has basically been finalized and there will be a call set up in the not too distant future to discuss the new permit with BEP Directors and Committee Chairs. The issue of what the regulations mean when they say the federal entity must provide plumbing and electricity was up next. Does GSA simply have to provide water and electricity to the space and the SLA must run it to the equipment or does GSA have to actually run wiring and pipes to the equipment? This one is still under discussion. At the center of this discussion is whether or not an SLA can use federal dollars to build out or renovate vending space. RSA is now researching this issue further. Next up will be how much space GSA must provide for a Randolph-Sheppard facility. This is a major issue in the D.C. area where GSA is routinely giving only 250 square feet in buildings with 2,000 – 3,000 occupants. There will be much more on this workgroup in future editions of The Blitz.
Crossing the Line of the Employer / Employee Relationship
In the last issue of The Blitz, we reported concerns that some agencies have crossed the line of creating an employer / employee relationship with the blind vendor. When an SLA includes things in their rules and/or operating agreements such as requiring specific hours, notice of sick leave, notice of vacation, absences from the facility, etc. it suggests an employer / employee relationship. When we use terms like “promotion” or “demotion”, we suggest the vendor is an employee. We put the vendor on “probation” which again sounds more like something one would find in an employee handbook. That is not to suggest disciplinary action is not an appropriate option; however, it is the license that is in probationary status and not the vendor personally. Establishing prices for the vendor can also be problematic. The bottom line is the more control the SLA exerts over the vendor the more likely it approaches that line. NABM had a labor attorney look at the rules and operating agreements in 2 states. The conclusion was that both had created an employer / employee relationship. The initial reaction to the report in the last issue was that RSA had approved it so we are okay. Wrong! We concede that RSA has approved rules that blur the line between employee and independent contractor. However, nothing in the Randolph-Sheppard Act precludes blind vendors from being state employees. RSA only reviews the rules for Randolph-Sheppard compliance and not Fair labor Standards compliance. If a state wants to treat vendors like employees, then the vendors must receive the benefits of being a state employee. If the Department of Labor made a determination that a blind vendor is, in fact, an employee, it could be a financial disaster as the logical solution would be back pay for retirement, annual leave, sick leave, etc. NABM does NOT want that and does not plan to push such an agenda. Instead, NABM urges every SLA and Committee of Blind Vendors to review their practices and ensure that vendors are treated as true independent contractors and not like employees. And if you are wondering, no this doesn’t mean the blind guy can just sit home and draw a check. The expectation is that blind entrepreneurs be engaged in the day-to-day business. This would not give the blind entrepreneur the authority to subcontract out the business. SLAs can still exert control over the ability of the vendor to subcontract just as they do with all contracts. We are just advocating for common sense solutions to a real problem.
PPP Net Income or Not? - The most popular question we have gotten in recent weeks is how to treat unemployment compensation and PPP loans as income to a vending facility. In NABM’s estimation, it does not factor in at all. Clearly, unemployment compensation is personal income and not net proceeds to a vending facility so that’s not even up for discussion. It’s no different than SSDI. The thing people forget is the PPP loan is just that – a loan. Loans are not income. In “normal” times, if a vendor is experiencing cash flow problems and goes to the bank to borrow money to make payroll, there is no question that (s)he could deduct the employees’ salaries as a business expense even though loan dollars were used. It is no different with a PPP loan. Likewise, if vendors use the PPP dollars to pay themselves, that is personal income and not income to the facility and again it is a loan. But what happens if the loan is forgiven? First, it cannot be assumed the loan will be forgiven. Even if an SLA argues that expenses paid with a PPP cannot be deducted for set aside purposes, that argument has zero validity as long as it is a loan. It may argue at the time the loan is forgiven that you have to be accountable for those funds used to pay expenses. We say no. At that point, the loan becomes a grant and the definition of net proceeds says nothing about grants. The final point is these are federal dollars. By what authority can an SLA charge set aside on federal dollars? In NABM’s opinion, these are matters best left between the blind entrepreneur and their banker and the IRS. The SLA has no authority to require that a blind entrepreneur disclose such loans. We realize that state programs are struggling with less revenue. However, it is disappointing that blind entrepreneurs who have been devastated by this pandemic are being asked by some states to pay set aside on unemployment compensation, loans, and grants.
Answering Your Questions No Matter How Odd They May Sound – In the last couple of issues, we have answered some fairly obscure questions. We may get back to those in the next issue but we wanted to focus on a more serious question we have gotten from lots of folks recently. Many states have provided relief to blind entrepreneurs during this pandemic in the way of increased retirement, vacation pay, sick pay, or fair minimum return. What are the set aside and tax implications of these monies? These relief dollars are not considered net proceeds of a vending facility; therefore, they are not subject to set aside assessments. However, in most cases, it is our understanding the IRS will treat such dollars received as taxable income. In most cases, the State will issue a 1099 at the end of the year. NABM cannot provide any official legal or tax advice so entrepreneurs are encouraged to consult with their accountants especially on tax questions.
National Convention Sets Records – The National Federation of the Blind had planned to hold its 2020 convention in Houston on July 14-19. Obviously, that did not happen. President Mark Riccobono and the Board of Directors would not be deterred. They set out to conduct a virtual convention. It was a massive undertaking and one that to many was unthinkable. 7,251 people registered for the virtual experience. Considering all streaming platforms, the number of participants topped out at over 10,000 people making it easily the largest gathering of blind people ever. It had the feel of any other convention and was an amazing accomplishment. NABM President Nicky Gacos presented an outstanding agenda for blind entrepreneurs and others at the Merchants Division meeting. 313 people participated in the event making it the largest number of people ever to attend a Merchants meeting at the national convention. As always, the highlight of the convention was the banquet speech. Yes, there was a virtual banquet and President Riccobono delivered an inspiring speech entitled “Language, Action, and Destiny: The Lived Experience of the Organized Blind Movement.” He talked about how words matter and he had a pointed message for all agencies serving the blind. NABM President Nicky Gacos would like to challenge everyone of you to read this speech which can be found at https://www.nfb.org/resources/speeches-and-reports/banquet-speeches/language-action-and-destiny-lived-experience . It will be very enlightening and will give you greater insight into the philosophy of the NFB.
Mississippi State On-Line Training for BEP Gaining Momentum – With BEP staffers working from home, it would appear many are taking advantage of the opportunity to do a little on-line training. The Mississippi State University Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision has updated its free BEP on-line training modules. The modules were developed as a training tool for new SLA staff; however, anyone can sign up and take them. There are 16 short modules including a new one on micromarkets. In the first 6 months of 2019, 97 individuals enrolled to take classes. During the first 6 months of this year, 267 have enrolled. Every BEP staff member is encouraged to take these training modules. They should be required as part of any new staffer’s onboarding process. Even though the modules were designed with BEP staff in mind, blind entrepreneurs are welcome to sign up and take the modules. Enroll today at
VR 100 Years Old - Happy Birthday to the Vocational Rehabilitation Program! That’s right. VR is 100 years old. President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act into law on June 2, 1920. In recognition of the occasion, RSA hosted a birthday party of sorts. A video was produced highlighting some VR success stories. A Randolph-Sheppard blind entrepreneur in Maine was featured in the video. Check it out at
Saying Goodbye to Some Longtime BEP Directors – Two BEP Directors have retried and one is on his way up. Ed Owens who led the Connecticut program for 33 years recently retired. He was the longest sitting BEP Director in the country. The biggest news is he left with his sanity intact after over 3 decades. The second longest sitting Director, Mike Hooks of Texas, recently got promoted. He will still have BET responsibilities but has hired a new BET Director (see below). Mike deserves much credit for the evolution of a program that offers outstanding opportunities for blind entrepreneurs. We need to do some research to see who the new king of the mountain in terms of seniority might be. The third Director to move on was Lori Brady in Alabama. She had been Director in Alabama since 2015. All 3 of these individuals will be missed and we wish them the very best of luck.
Say Hello to These New Directors – As the old guard moves out, the new guard comes in. Welcome aboard Tyrell Sampson in Connecticut. He is new to BEP but the Committee Chair there says he is an “A plus guy.” Also, we say hello to Lizet Hinojosa in Texas. She too is just cutting her teeth on Randolph-Sheppard but has a wealth of experience in closely related fields that will help her out as the BEP Director. And finally, welcome Deborah Myrick in Alabama. She is no stranger to BEP having worked for BEP in Alabama for 22 years including the last 5 as the Assistant Director. It should be a seamless transition in the Yellowhammer State. (Did you know the Yellowhammer is the state bird in Alabama? Did you know the Yellowhammer was a bird?) Anyway, we wish all 3 new members to the fraternity good luck. NABM is prepared to assist you guys any way it can.
We Have New Committee Chairs Too – We also have new Committee Chairs in at least 4 states. Welcome Giovanni Francese who follows Donnie Anderson as the Chair in Illinois. Everyone knows Donnie and we won’t say goodbye because he will be very active. We also welcome aboard to the family Frank Roberts in Connecticut, Ben Vos in Pennsylvania, and Harold Brewer in Arkansas. Welcome guys!
ATTENTION to all Committee Chairs. If you are not taking part in NABM’s monthly Committee Chair calls or on the Committee Chair chat line, let us know. We need to make sure you do.
Meet our Newest Sponsor – NABM is happy to welcome aboard our newest sponsor in 2020 – Libera, Inc. Libera is a software solutions company that has a large footprint in the rehabilitation field. They are in the process of putting finishing touches on their new management information system for BEP which they call Endeavor. The system automates recordkeeping, eliminates accessibility issues, and makes life simpler for administrators and blind entrepreneurs alike. It enables a BEP to go virtually paperless if it so chooses. Among the features are the ability for vendors to file their monthly reports and pay set aside fees on-line, purchasing and inventory tracking modules, site visits that can be completed on-site and emailed to the vendor, and an automated bid process. It generates the RSA-15 which is awesome. Several states are looking at the system now and everyone who has seen a demo has been blown away. If you think your state might be interested, you can reach out to Terry Smith and he can connect you with the Libera folks.
Sign Up to Be Part of the Movement - In past issues of the Blitz, we haven’t really emphasized membership in the organization; however, we really would like to have you as a member. Dues are only $10 per year. You help the cause but more importantly you will be part of the NABM and the national federation of the blind. Join now by going to https://blindmerchants.org/about/membership-form/.
Check Us Out on Facebook – Like the National Association of Blind Merchants on Facebook and keep up with the latest and greatest when it comes to Randolph-Sheppard.
Trivia and Tidbits
- As if the pandemic hasn’t been bad enough, the National Weather Service is now predicting a busier than normal hurricane season. Vendors in the coastal states had better get ready.
- The National Federation of the Blind National Convention is scheduled to be in New Orleans in 2021 and then Houston in 2023.
- NABM Board member and Minnesota Committee Chair Michael Colbrunn and Connecticut Committee Chair Frank Roberts both play for blind hockey teams. Take one look at Mike’s hockey hair and you will understand. Still, it’s safe to say goal ball and beep baseball have more blind entrepreneurs participating.
- Speaking of Minnesota, did you know that the first liquid dispensing vending machine was patented in that state in 1884?
- But what was the first patented vending machine in the U.S.? It was a stamp machine patented in 1857.
- In 2019, Arizona blind vendors had the highest median income in the country which was $89,729
- Mississippi’s first blind vendor was located at the Vicksburg Post Office in 1938. Tennessee’s first facility was in 1943 in a Nashville hospital. Do you know when and where your state’s first vending facility was located? If so, let us know.
- Vending machines on airplanes? It could be a reality. Check out this article
- Which Committee Chair goes by the nickname Hillbilly Biker? If you said West Virginia, you would be right.
Money Matters – NABM sent out its annual solicitation letter a month ago. Many of you had indicated you planned on making your donation at BLAST during the Call to Action. We typically raise $25,000 each year at BLAST and based on what we were being told expected that to double this year. As you can imagine, a financial hit like this is challenging to say the least. We certainly understand that the COVID-19 crisis has impacted everyone financially and people’s ability to give may not be what it was. However, if you had planned on giving at BLAST and are still in position to help, you can mail your checks to:
National Association of Blind Merchants
7450 Chapman Highway, #319
Knoxville, TN 37920
You can also donate by going to our website at www.blindmerchants.org where we have added a new way you can contribute. We can create a bank draft for you so you can sign up for monthly giving. Contact Barbara Badger at Barbara@merchants-nfb.org if you are interested in setting up bank draft donations.
If your state is one of the 13 that doesn’t take advantage of NABM’s subscription services, we’d welcome your involvement. Terry Smith would be happy to discuss the services with you.
Share Your News with Everyone– Help us keep everyone informed about what is happening around the country. Let us hear from you. Tell us what is going on in your state. What is happening in one state affects what is going on in another. NABM and the NFBEI offer the best vehicle to keep everyone updated on what is going on out there.
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The National Federation of the Blind knows that blindness is not the characteristic that defines you or your future. Every day we raise the expectations of blind people, because low expectations create obstacles between blind people and our dreams. You can live the life you want; blindness is not what holds you back.
Resolution 2020-29: Regarding Emergency COVID-19 Relief Funding for Blind Randolph-Sheppard Entrepreneurs
WHEREAS, the Randolph-Sheppard Act affords over 1,800 blind entrepreneurs the opportunity to manage and operate vending facilities in government buildings; and,
WHEREAS, the vast majority of these businesses were shut down or had sales drastically reduced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic; and,
WHEREAS, the United States House of Representatives included $20,000,000 in the Fiscal Year 2021 Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Funding Bill to provide relief to the Randolph-Sheppard entrepreneurs negatively affected by the pandemic; and,
WHEREAS, the United States Senate has not yet included this one-time appropriation in its version of the bill: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this eighteenth day of July, 2020, that this organization thank and commend Representative Nita Lowey, Chair of the House Committee on Appropriations, and Representative Rosa DeLauro, Chair of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, for including this funding for Randolph-Sheppard entrepreneurs; and,
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the National Federation of the Blind urge the United States Senate to include this same funding in its Fiscal Year 2021 Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Funding Bill.