Braille Monitor                                                                                April 1986

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The Blind Ask: "Where is the Beef?" GSA Responds

GSA is the General Services Administration, sometimes called the federal government's "landlord." Most federal buildings, other than Post Offices or military installations, are managed by GSA. There has been a bias at GSA against having blind vendors operate large cafeterias. No problem about selling pre-wrapped sandwiches, packaged cookies, chips, or other snacks, so long as they are bagged or boxed before they reach the vending facility. But to have the blind actually run cafeterias, no way!

The National Federation of the Blind has led the battle to change these attitudes. We are tired of the lobby stand image for the blind vendors. That is a throw-back to the 1940's and 1950's. The vendor of the 1980's ought to have a real, going business, selling whatever federal employees and members of the public like to eat. Normally, that is not a sandwich which comes in a wrapper or a salad requiring an engineering degree just to figure out how to extract it from the cellophane. We're talking about real burgers, hot meals, chicken and fries, such as you would get in a real cafeteria. Yes, we're talking about real blind people serving food in real cafeterias.

Top officials from GSA attended the 1985 convention of the National Federation of the Blind. With about 2,000 of us in the room, they became very agreeable. We were agreeable, too, but we wanted an end to GSA's bias against the blind in the operation of federal cafeterias. After the session where these and other vending matters were discussed, we agreed to make a formal request for a policy change. GSA would consider our request and respond. The following correspondence reports in detail the results. In other words: here's the beef. What other organization can report that such results are directly traceable to its effort?

Baltimore, Maryland
July 12, 1985

Mr. Wolfgang J. Zoellner
Assistant Commissioner for Buildings Management
General Services Administration
Washington, D.C.

Dear Mr. Zoellner:

This is in reference to our recent conversation regarding the GSA policy on extensions to cafeteria contracts. On behalf of the National Federation of the Blind, I am asking for a review of the current contract extension policy in order to achieve full conformity with the letter and spirit of the RandolphSheppard Act (hereinafter referred to as the "Act").

As you know, we object to the policy of extending cafeteria contracts for as long as fifteen years, during which time the priority for blind vendors required by the Act is not applied. 34 CFR Section 395.33 (c) says: "All contracts or other existing arrangements pertaining to the operation of cafeterias on federal property not covered by contract with, or by permits issued to, state licensing agencies shall be renegotiated subsequent to the effective date of this part on or before the expiration of such contracts or other arrangements pursuant to the provisions of this section." The provisions referred to require that the priority be applied in accordance with the Act.

It was not contemplated that the contracts for federal cafeterias would be allowed to run three times longer than their initial terms. When the Act was amended in 1974 Congress found that there were certain administrative barriers to expansion of the blind vendor program. The amendments were aimed at removing impediments to program growth with the expressed goal of Congress that the number of vending facilities operated by blind persons on federal property should double within five years.

Considered in light of this legislative history, the extension policy is clearly inconsistent with Congressional expectations. But in other ways, too, GSA's extension policy frustrates growth of business opportunities for blind vendors in the face of contrary Congressional intent. In 1974 the definition of "vending stand" was specifically scrapped in favor of the new term "vending facility." This was more than fancy talk or semantics. Congress intended to offer blind vendors a greater selection of business opportunities, including the operation of large federal cafeterias.

The new definition emphasizes food preparation in addition to the more traditional vending stand, where only pre wrapped items were sold. Moreover, the 1974 amendments to the Act call for upward mobility of blind vendors with opportunities for business that are far more complex than the traditional vending stand. Yet, if GSA withholds cafeterias from the priority for the blind as long as fifteen years, the promise of upward mobility for the blind is seriously impaired.

I do not propose in this letter to undertake a full-scale legal argument on how the extension policy conflicts with the Act. Although I am firmly convinced that extensions are arguably illegal, I think we both recognize that this is a metter of policy, not law. So what should the policy be?

I hope you will feel as we do that as a matter of policy GSA should aggressively apply the priority for blind vendors to operate cafeterias whenever any term of a contract expires. Only where the priority is specifically waived by written consent of the state licensing agency should the contract be extended beyond the initial five-year term. But the extension may not necessarily be for an additional five years.

The state licensing agency's written consent, if it is obtained, should identify a specific period during which the priority is being waived. Upon the expiration of that period, GSA should again attempt to award the cafeteria in question by applying the priority for blind vendors. I do not think such a policy necessarily equates with a complete abolition of extensions. Nor do I think as a matter of policy that the priority for the blind should be routinely disregarded in favor of extensions.

For the reasons set forth herein, and since GSA is clearly obliged to promote opportunities for blind vendors in cafeterias and other types of vending facilities, a review of the current policy on extensions of cafeteria contracts, in light of developments subsequent to the 1974 amendments to the Act, is clearly in order. In this regard, I will be glad to assist in arranging visits or any further meetings that may be necessary to reach a mutually agreeable understanding. Please call me or write at any time. Of course, we will expect a written response to indicate what steps are being taken to effect a review or modification of the extension policy.

Cordially yours,
James Gashel
Director of Governmental Affairs
National Federation of the Blind

P.S. Members of the Congressional delegation from Alaska have asked to be kept informed of developments to improve compliance with the Act. Therefore, by the copies of this letter indicated below, I am advising the Alaska Congressional delegation that the National Federation of the Blind has asked GSA to change the extension policy as more fully discussed herein.

cc: Mr. Allen Sanderson
The Honorable Ted Stevens
The Honorable Frank Murkowski
The Honorable Don Young

Washington, D.C.
August 9, 1985

Dear Mr. Gashel:

Thank you for your letter of July 12, 1985, concerning this agency's policy relating to the exercising of extension options to cafeteria contracts. We are appreciative of the National Federation of the Blind's (NFB) forthright views on this subject.

As indicated in our discussion on July 2 at the NFB convention, we will reassess our policy on cafeteria contract extension options toward providing additional opportunities in support of the Raldolph-Sheppard Program.

Our methodology in the reassessment of the lengths of cafeteria extension options will include determining how other federal agencies, private corporations and institutions presently structure procurements.... This evaluation should be completed within three months. We welcome the views of the NFB in conjunction with this effort. We will be pleased to receive further written communication from the NFB and meet witr you to discuss any aspects of this matter.

You may be assured of our most careful attention to this effort.

Sincerely,
Wolfgang J. Zoellner
Assistant Commissioner for Buildings Management
General Services Administration

Washington, D.C.
December 23, 1985

Dear Mr. Gashel:

This further refers to my letter of August 9, 1985, concerning this agency's policy relating to the exercising of extension options to cafeteria contracts. In accordance with our discussion of July 2 at the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) convention, we conducted a detailed reassessment of our policy on cafeteria contract extension options with views toward strengthened support of the Randolph-Sheppard Program.

Upon receipt and careful study of management information and recommendation on the issue, we conclude that state licensing agencies should not be precluded from the opportunity to assume the operation of a specific cafeteria for a period of up to fifteen years. In advance of the expiration of every five year extension of the contract, the priority for the blind is to be invoked. In a timely manner, the state licensing agencies will be invited to submit a proposal for the operation of the facility.

If satisfactory, the state licensing agency will be awarded the contract for the operation of the cafeteria. This will apply to both future contracts and those previously awarded. Considering the need to modify and issue implementing policy and the length of the procurement cycle, early 1987 is the most imminent time at which existing cafeteria contracts will be subject to negotiation with state licensing agencies. Of great significance also is the fact that our revised policy will assure that state licensing agencies are offered the opportunity to furnish proposals for all GSA contracts before the facility may be competitively offered.

The instructions implementing this revised requirement are being issued to our regional offices. We believe this significant revision to our policy will accelerate the assignment of cafeterias to the blind. Your concerns and the views expressed by the NFB are greatly appreciated.

Sincerely,
Wolfgang J. Zoellner
Assistant Commissioner for Buildings Management
General Services Administration

Baltimore, Maryland
January 7, 1986

Dear Mr. Zoellner:

This is in response to your letter of December 23, 1985, in which you announce changes to GSA's policies for the award of cafeterias under the RandolphSheppard Act's blind priority.

As I am sure you can imagine, the news conveyed in your letter is a breath of fresh air. It now appears that the state licensing agencies will not be prevented from obtaining cafeteria contracts which may have formerly been withheld as a result of competitive bidding procedures and the automatic extension policy previously in effect. To the extent that the new policy is observed in its spirit as well as in its letter, there should be observable, positive results for the future growth of the blind vendor program and the services which blind vendors provide to federal employees on property controlled by GSA.

Your letter indicates that the new policies and instructions for the regions will be issued shortly. Please consider this a request for copies. We will be interested in reviewing these materials as soon as possible. Meanwhile, thanks again for what appears to be very good news.

Cordially yours,
James Gashel
Director of Governmental Affairs
National Federation of the Blind

These letters actually tell the story of how it happened. It is not a matter of conjecture or puffery. The National Federation of the Blind has again done the job for vendors. In mid-January we received the new contract package and instructions for GSA cafeterias. These documents make clear that negotiations rather than bids will be used by GSA in the future to award cafeterias for operation by blind vendors. So state licensing agencies will have the opportunity to obtain cafeteria contracts without competition from commercial firms.

Moreover, the new policy says that commercial cafeteria contracts will not be extended automatically. State licensing agencies will be offered an opportunity to take over any cafeteria each time a contract or any of its five-year terms expire. Furthermore, the state agencies will get one year's notice in order to have time to negotiate a contract to replace a commercial vendor with a blind vendor.

This is not to say that the new contracting policies for GSA cafeterias are flawless. A few more points will need to be negotiated. However, we cannot minimize the improvements. They are real, and they should result in more cafeterias being operated by the blind on federal property. State licensing agencies may, of course, fail to follow through on accepting these new opportunities.

But if they do, we must follow up and take action. So to the question, "Where's the beef," the answer is: in the new cafeterias which should be available to the blind during the coming years. This is a much more productive way to solve the problem than some of the efforts we have recently seen. Confrontation is, of course, always a possibility, but it should be used sparingly and only as a last resort.

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