About a dozen blind vendors who operate stands in government buildings walked a picket line yesterday in front of the D.C. Rehabilitation Administration to protest a decision by the agency that they fear will cut into their incomes.
For more than three hours, the vendors, some with white canes and one with a guide dog, held protest signs aloft and passed out fliers at 605 G St. NW, telling reporters that a recent change in the management of their stands is "of questionable legality" and may ultimately cost them money. Their annual earnings range from about $10,000 to $25,000, they said.
"We should have something to say about the decision-making for our livelihood," said Ray Raysor, who operates a snack bar at the Office of Personnel Management building in Northwest.
The 60 stands in both federal and D.C. buildings are part of the federal Randolph-Sheppard program, which has helped blind vendors set up stands, snack bars and cafeterias in government offices all over the country since the 1930s.
The program, which is administered by local agencies such as the D.C. Rehabilitation Administration, trains the vendors, sets them up in business and provides certain management services. The vendors then "either fly or not, according to our own abilities," said vendor Gale Conrad, one of the protesters.
The vendors said that until Jan. 1, the vending stands in D.C. were managed by District Enterprises for the Blind Inc., a nonprofit corporation whose policies and practices were largely determined by the vendors themselves, some of whom sat on its board.
Over the vendors' objections, agency administrator Vernon E. Hawkins hired the DAC Corp., a private company, to take on most of the management services in January, and District Enterprises went out of business, the vendors said.
The vendors charged that the move violated the nonprofit requirement in the regulations. They had petitioned Hawkins to keep District Enterprises and restructure it to eliminate its problems, which the vendors acknowledge existed. They said they feared that a "for-profit" management firm would eventually cost more and cut into their own incomes.
Hawkins said yesterday that he did not feel District Enterprises could be improved enough to handle new opportunities the agency had identified for blind vendors to run cafeterias in several federal buildings. He said he hired DAC "in an effort to expand and improve the program."
Hawkins maintained that his agency has taken over day-to-day management of the program and had only contracted out for certain services, eliminating the need for the "nonprofit" corporation.
Further, he said he had promised vendors Thursday night that "we will look at reestablishing a nonprofit organization . . . . I think that will satisfy them. More than likely some [blind vendors] will be on the board."
The protesters did not agree. "We don't have any confidence in Mr. Hawkins' word," said Conrad as his fellow vendors continued their protest.