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For Texas’ program of blind merchants, the pandemic shrank opportunities, exposed income gaps

By Neelam Bohra, The Texas Tribune

For Texas’ program of blind merchants, the pandemic shrank opportunities, exposed income gaps” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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For almost 40 years, Jerry House has stocked vending machines and staffed cafes across Texas’ government buildings as part of the Business Enterprises of Texas program, a decades-old initiative that helps legally blind people become food service entrepreneurs.

But at the annual conference in November, the first one held in-person since before the pandemic, House said the program hit a new low: he could barely navigate the hotel.

House, who is partially blind, couldn’t find straight sidewalks through the courtyard to access parts of the hotel. It was difficult to find food or water. And he was one of the lucky ones: his girlfriend was there to help. Others had attended alone.

“You’ve got 88 blind people there. They know we need accommodations. They should be getting a hotel that’s accommodating,” House said.

House has spent decades praising the program, but he and other vendors have seen a distinct change in past years. State agency shake-ups and varying leadership created issues with transparency and accessibility. And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, fully knocking the program into disarray.

Government-owned buildings shut down and emptied out. Once workers did return, they came in lower numbers on fewer days. The need for a full-time cafe shrunk into the occasional stop at a grab-and-go or vending machine.

Left: Snacks are organized into open containers to make it easier for Jerry House to stock his vending machines. Right: Jerry House loads bins of snacks onto his truck to be transported. Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune

“The pandemic devastated us,” House, 63, who sits on the elected committee of vendors and represents San Antonio, said. “People sold their cars or their homes. They moved in with their family. They might have a little bit of vending that’s still going on in their business. And they’re struggling just to hold on until something better comes along.”

Even now, vendors say the program still hasn’t fully recovered. The conference hotel was just one example of its problems, they said.

A spokesperson for the Texas Workforce Commission, which manages the vendor contract program and set up the conference in El Paso, said none of the registrants specifically requested accommodations for the hotel. But, it said the commission still provided staff to help with guidance and directions to meetings and sent out accessible forms of the meeting agenda.

House said staff were around and helpful during meeting times but for the rest of the time, like at night, people were alone.

Jerry House holds onto Dannine's arm for guidance at Sam's Club on Jan. 17, 2024. As they walk, Dannine makes sure to lead House around the store as they get snacks for House's vending machines.
Jerry House holds onto his partner Dannine’s arm for guidance as they restock on inventory for House’s vending machines. Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune

Catherine McKee, the commission spokesperson, also said in a statement that the vendors whose income fell during the pandemic received $3,000 per month for five months in 2020. In 2021, the state distributed $1.2 million in federal funding to vendors, she said.

“[The commission] was not completely unresponsive to us,” House said. “I just feel like they dropped the ball in a lot of ways they really shouldn’t have.”

Shrinking Access

Every state has its own version of a program for blind merchants. The programs were initially established as part of the federal Randolph-Sheppard Act in 1936. Although guidelines have shifted over time, their purpose remains the same: to help advance the careers of blind people.

Karla Martinez, 48, finished her training and fully entered the Texas program in late 2010. Like other blind contractors, the state assigned her to operate a cafe in an Austin government-owned building. She enjoyed everything about it: interacting with people on a daily basis. Managing her own business.

But in 2016, the state dissolved the program’s former agency parent, the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services, or DARS. The program then moved to the Texas Workforce Commission as part of an effort to consolidate state agencies. Even at that time, advocates worried about the move’s impact on state services for the blind.

“DARS seemed like they were at least willing to work with us, and they understood our disability,” said Harvey Stavinoha, who worked as a vendor since 1972 and retired this year. “But TWC is all about, ‘This is how we’re going to do business. You’ve just got to fit in.’”

Martinez, Stavinoha and other vendors say while the Texas program has offered them business opportunities, it could improve both its options and accountability.

For example, some vendors feel there isn’t enough transparency or organization around how the state chooses to assign individuals to types of facilities.

The disparities in facilities can be gaping — some vendors might make around $10,000 per year while working small routes for vending machines. Others, especially those who get assigned opportunities with the U.S. Department of Defense, can make hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

Vendors compete for these opportunities, submitting bids to the state for their ideas. The commission said it then selects someone based on a list of qualifying guidelines. Some vendors have felt frustrated with the process, though, because dozens of them compete over few lucrative spots — the state’s program currently only has four military contracts as of 2024, TWC spokesperson Erin Dufner said in a statement.

“Everybody has the opportunity to bid on facilities when they come up,” Martinez said. “I myself have bid on military opportunities I have not gotten, and when I was doing my applications, another vendor told me: ‘I don’t know why you waste your time.’”

The commission has attempted to close the opportunity gap, doing things like updating vending machine technology and replacing old equipment.

Karla Martinez uses a trackpad to navigate around an enlarged screen on Jan. 18, 2024. One software that Martinez uses to enlarge text on the computer is a software called MAGic.
Karla Martinez uses MAGic, a screen enlargement software for low vision users, to navigate her work at the Travis Cafe. Martinez manages two cafes through the program but the income isn’t enough. Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune

McKee said it has tried to improve the efficiency of the program and continue to modernize opportunities, and it said it opened six new facilities of multiple kinds, including one military contract, since 2021. At the same time, seven have closed since 2020, McKee said.

But the Elected Manager’s Committee, which consists of program vendors representing different regions of the state, has advocated for all facilities to have a minimum per-year income of $50,000, Martinez said. Martinez represents North Austin.

As of Sept. 1, the median of net vendor earnings was $47,513, but the average vendor earnings were $95,234, Dufner said.

When the pandemic hit Martinez, she lost money and inventory. She went on unemployment for a month before picking up another job. It wasn’t enough, so she restarted her work in the program at the Brown Heatly building in Austin, which houses both the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and the Department of Family and Protective Services.

Left: Karla Martinez uses a register equipped by the state that features raised markers and a speaking function. Right: Karla Martinez rings up a customer at the Travis Cafe. Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune

Still, Martinez said her income has fallen. Her sales went from around $50,000 per month to around $10,000. As a result, she took on a temporary job managing a second cafe in 2022 in the William Travis Building in Austin, where Texas’ Public Utility Commission is located.

“Most people call me, and they all say they want to resign because they don’t see any solution. There is no light at the end of the tunnel,” Martinez said. “I’m very invested in this program, but I’ve been considering it for a long time, but I have not made a decision to do it. I am still in survival mode.”

Since the pandemic, the number of vendors in the program has declined from 105 to 88, McKee said in a statement. The number of facilities opened has stayed around the same, currently at 114.

While this seems small, Texas still has one of the biggest programs in the country, said Scott Eggen, president of the Randolph-Sheppard Vendors of America, an organization under the American Council of the Blind. This is partially thanks to the military contracts, he said.

Karla Martinez reads a sign while wokring at the Travis Cafe on Jan. 18, 2024. Martinez operates the Travis Cafe.
Karla Martinez reads a sign while working at the Travis Cafe. “I’ve been considering it for a long time, but I have not made a decision to do it,” Martinez said about leaving the program. Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune

But the state could look into expanding the types of vending opportunities it provides because “business as usual has been devastating for a lot of folks,” Eggen said.

For House, he said the pandemic didn’t hurt him as much as others because he had already started reducing his hours. Since 2005, he has both managed a coffee shop and stocked the vending machines at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.

Before then, he’d moved all around the state, like many blind vendors do — stocking and cleaning vending machines at a rest stop in Colorado County, or running the cafeteria at the Lufkin State Supported Living Center, a residential institution for intellectually disabled people.

But, the way shutdowns were handled damaged his faith in the state’s program.

“I went from nothing but praise for the program before the pandemic and before the change in leadership, to now,” House said, “where every state has a program and if someone’s really interested, I would not advise coming to Texas.”

Neelam Bohra is a 2023-24 New York Times disability reporting fellow, based at The Texas Tribune through a partnership with The New York Times and the National Center on Disability and Journalism, which is based at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

Disclosure: New York Times has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/01/19/texas-blind-merchants-program/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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