It’s a Big MACs World

By Ann Sullivan, WIPP Chief Advocate

Earlier this week, WIPP submitted comments on a proposed rule changing the rules related to small business participation on multiple award contracts, also known as MACs.

The FAR Council, which oversees federal acquisition regulations, sought to clarify the use of set-asides, reserves, and orders placed against MACs. As contractors already know, use of these large contracts is steadily growing. Ensuring all socioeconomic groups, including women-owned small businesses (WOSBs) have access to these opportunities, is a top priority for WIPP.

The rule adds coverage for the new concept of a “reserve.” A reserve would be used on MACs where a partial set-aside is not feasible, but where agencies still want small businesses to participate as prime contractors. This “reserve” concept is very similar to the tracks outlined in WIPP’s Do Not Enter report, which shows how agencies have utilized certain socio-economic set-asides, and discriminated against women-owned firms.

While the proposal provides clarity for contracting officers, it falls short by including an out-of-date policy regarding the limitations on subcontracting. In May 2016, the Small Business Administration finalized a rule change that substantially revised the limitations on subcontracting by making it easier for women-owned firms to comply. The new rule focuses on the percentage of the award amount that has been subcontracted, not the percentage of work. The rule also provides an exemption for similarly situated entities, so WOSBs subcontracting to other WOSBs does not count against the percentage of the award subcontracted. This new policy is a win-win for small businesses, but the FAR Council does not acknowledge the new policy in its rule. If one of the purposes of the rule is to clarify small business authorities for contracting officers, the FAR should use the most up-to-date performance of work requirements.

WIPP appreciates the interest of the FAR Council in providing greater flexibility and clarity for the role of small businesses in multiple award contracts. But this proposed rule does not do enough. Without additional small business protections, this rule could hurt our nation’s biggest job creators- small businesses.

WIPPs full comments on the rule can be found here.

Reimagining Health Care

By Ann Sullivan, WIPP Chief Advocate

Affordability, predictability, and flexibility were three themes reiterated at the Feb. 7 hearing held by the House Committee on Small Business entitled “Reimagining the Health Care Marketplace for America’s Small Business.” It was held for the purpose of taking a look at the current marketplace and its recent difficulties, and to explore options to improve access, affordability, and consistency.

While no clear legislative path has yet been paved, many facts, figures, and ideas were floated around regarding how to ensure that small business is not an afterthought in the revamping of the healthcare system. Solutions presented and discussed at the hearing included tax credits for small business, across state line coverage, and Health Savings Accounts and Health Reimbursement Arrangements.

Here is more about the items discussed.

  • Tax credits for the self-employed: As the Tax Code currently stands, self-employed individuals are restricted from deducting their health insurance premiums. Small, self-employed business owners end up paying more for health insurance because their premiums are not treated the same for taxes as other businesses.

Leveling the playing field by giving these small businesses tax credits would improve affordability for small business owners, as well as expand the pool of coverage, according to Keith Hall of the National Association of the Self-Employed (NASE).

  • Across state line coverage: The number of insurers participating in the marketplace varies widely from state to state, as do the number of coverage plans. The lack of competition among insurers in the current exchanges decreases pressure to keep costs down.

Mr. Hall of the NASE believes that allowing for the sale of health insurance across state lines will boost competition, driving costs down. In order for this to happen, Congress will have to enact a health plan that will modify the existing law that inhibits the sale of health insurance across state lines.

  • Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) and Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs): A provision of a law signed into Congress last session allows small employers with fewer than 50 full-time employees that do not offer a group health plan to fund employee HRAs to pay for qualified out-of-pocket medical expenses and for non-group plan health insurance premiums, including plans purchased on the public health care exchanges.

Allowing small businesses to offer a bare bones plan and HSAs would allow individuals to decide the best choice for themselves and their families, according to Tom Secor of Durable Corporation, who testified on behalf of the National Small Business Association (NSBA).

This hearing was the first of a continuing series that will take place on the discussion of healthcare repeal and replacement. To read full written testimony from each witness here.

Gloria Larkin, WIPP’s National Partner of the Month – February 2017

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Gloria Larkin, president of TargetGov, has been a staunch ally of WIPP for years. She leads GiveMe5 webinars, responds quickly and effectively to WIPP’s calls to action, and is always on the lookout for new WIPP members. It’s thanks to people like Gloria that WIPP thrives!

Read our Q&A with Gloria to learn more about her and her work.

Q: Tell us a little about TargetGov and its mission

A: TargetGov is celebrating its 20th year in business in 2017! Our mission is to help small, mid-sized and large government contractors win business and aggressively grow their companies. Our clients have won over $3.9 billion in federal contracts in just the last five years.

Q: Have you always been an entrepreneur? If not, what inspired you to take the leap?

A: I have been both an employee and an entrepreneur. I took the leap 20 years ago because I wanted to do something that no one else was doing—help businesses see great success and increase their revenues with a targeted, proactive marketing and business development process.

Q: Have you encountered challenges you had to overcome as a business woman and if so, what have you learned from them?

A: The challenges have been constant, and access to capital is one of the biggest. Through the years, I have had several business loans to grow my business, and none of them were the amount I asked for. It’s an issue even to this day. In applying for a line of credit, I was offered less than half of what I thought it should be. I had the chutzpah to say exactly the amount I thought they should give me (more than double what they offered) and was pleasantly surprised that they agreed. In the past I wouldn’t have pushed, but now, I do.

Q: Do you have a success story that you are particularly proud of? Tell us about it!

A: My proudest moments are when our clients contact us and tell us of their awarded contracts and successful business growth. It feels like my children are successful and I am one proud parent! The first billion was a heady milestone. Now as we see the four-billion milestone coming this year, we are ecstatic about their success!

Q: What is the biggest lesson learned working with the federal government?

A: The biggest lesson is that the federal government market is constantly changing. The rules and regulations are burdensome, yes, but success is predicated on having a strategy and plan that addresses this constant change and adapts proactively, with a trackable, measureable and scalable process. Seeing it work in real life is extraordinary!

Q: Do you have any tips you would like to share with women pursuing federal contracts?

A: This is a demanding market and one must be well prepared, have a well-thought-out roadmap, the discipline to execute it, and measurable actions to track success. This is truly the market in which you can think BIG and see results. But it takes effort and knowledge; use the experts to help you!

Q: Tell us about your experience as a WIPP member. What resources and value has WIPP provided that has been helpful to you and your company?

A: WIPP has truly changed my life. I started getting involved as a committee chair, then learned how to talk to my Congress people. I participated in virtually every area WIPP works in and found a home on the procurement committee. Then I worked my way onto the government board, and then to Chair of the Educational Foundation. Thanks to WIPP, I have testified before the House Small Business Committee, and traveled to more than 15 states and had lifetime trips to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Japan and Oxford, England to speak or work with women in those counties. Working to start the GiveMe5 program, and supporting it through the years has been a great highlight. WIPP has impacted more than 30,000 women business owners through GiveMe5! And I am deeply honored to have many WIPP members as clients and heart-felt friends.

10 Things You Should Know From the Linda McMahon Hearing

By Ann Sullivan, WIPP Chief Advocate

On Jan. 24, the Senate Small Business Committee held a hearing on the confirmation of Linda McMahon (former WWE CEO), to become Administrator of the Small Business Administration (SBA). Here are the 10 things you should know about her hearing:

  1. SBA is still part of the cabinet—President Obama elevated the position of SBA Administrator to cabinet level. President Trump is sticking with that change.
  2. Existing programs are safe…for now—When questioned by numerous senators on specific program commitments, McMahon repeatedly said that if the program is working then it should be continued.
  3. She will go to bat for small business in the executive branch—McMahon sees herself as the small business advocate within the executive branch, and will go to other agencies and make sure that more federal contracting opportunities are provided to small businesses.
  4. She will work to expand the 5% contracting goal for women—Senator Duckworth (IL), asked about the 5% goal, and McMahon expressed support for women entrepreneurs, broadly, “I have been very forthcoming in wanting women entrepreneurship to grow. And I will continue to support that, it is very near and dear to my heart.”
  5. She has a history working with Veterans—According to McMahon, WWE was always concerned about veterans and how to help create jobs for them. Senator Cardin (MD) discussed the Veterans Institute for Procurement (VIP) program and noted its impact and high performance.
  6. Look for an emphasis on mentoring—Given McMahon’s background in business mentoring, she may focus on programs that incorporate mentorship. As co-founder of Women’s Leadership LIVE, McMahon’s organization educates entrepreneurs about all facets of starting and expanding their business.
  7. She wants to help free small businesses from burdensome regulations—While many senators asked questions about regulatory burdens on small businesses, Senator Ernst brought up the PROVE It Act—legislation passed out of committee last session that empowers the SBA Office of Advocacy to require agencies to analyze rules for their small business impact.
  8. Speaking of advocacy—McMahon expressed support for expanding the independent SBA Office of Advocacy to ensure that the voice of small business is heard on federal regulations.
  9. She wants small businesses to participate in anticipated Infrastructure projects—When asked about promoting fair opportunities for small businesses to compete for work in the highly anticipated infrastructure plan, McMahon stated that small business participation was a given.
  10. Streamlining cumbersome federal contracting—McMahon expressed support for streamlining the alphabet soup of federal websites and databases like SAM and FBO.

This was a conciliatory confirmation hearing. Given the contentious nature of other confirmation hearings, it was unknown what tone McMahon’s hearing would take. But the hearing went well. Senators were polite and McMahon was responsive to concerns. With so much partisanship in Washington, it was positive to see McMahon’s interest in working with the committee—both sides.

Senate Begins Process to Repeal Obamacare

By Ann Sullivan, WIPP Chief Advocate

The 115th Congress is already at work and taking votes that impact women business owners. The Senate voted 51 to 48 early Thursday to approve a budget resolution that instructs Congressional committees to begin work on legislation repealing major portions of the Affordable Care Act.

Senator Rand Paul was the lone Republican “no” vote and Republicans defeated Democratic amendments defending popular portions of the ACA, including expanded Medicaid and Medicare and allowing kids to stay on their parents’ insurance until they’re 26.

The House is expected to take up the resolution this week, though debate may extend into the weekend.

WIPP will work with Congress to ensure that whatever changes are implemented address accessibility and affordability—issues that have plagued the small business market.

WIPP will stay on top of legislative developments like this in 2017 to make sure you have the latest information you need.

HRAs Back in Time for the New Year

Tucked deep within the 824-page “21st Century Cures” legislation passed this week, was a major victory for Women Impacting Public Policy and entrepreneurs nationwide. The bill, on its way to the President for his signature will allow for the return of Health Reimbursement Arrangements, or “HRAs”, a small business-friendly way to offer health benefits.

In short, HRAs offer business owners an easy and tax-friendly way to subsidize employee medical costs, including insurance premiums. For example, a business owner could offer $200 a month to employees toward their individual premiums instead of providing health insurance through a company plan.

In practice, employees shop for plans in the individual market, finding what best fits their needs and budget. The business reimburses employees for some or that entire premium. This was a popular method for small businesses for which company-wide insurance plans were prohibitively costly.

The Affordable Care Act, however, and its interpretation by the IRS created stiff penalties (up to $500,000) for businesses using this method to offer a health benefit. This legislation reverses that interpretation, making clear that such plans are acceptable, penalty free.

Employers can now offer up to $4,950 per employee per year ($10,000 for employees with dependents) and employees must show they used funds on medical purposes, including premiums. Companies must have 50 or fewer employees and must offer the benefit to all employees to be eligible.

WIPP has long advocated a fix to this unintended consequence and took the lead in pressing Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell to provide temporary relief last year.

John Stanford, WIPP Government Relations

Getting Women ONBOARD

By: Debbie Kobrin, WIPP Government Relations

WIPP has consistently advocated for increased female participation in venture funding. Last week, SBA confirmed WIPP’s conclusions with the release of Measuring the Representation of Women and Minorities in the SBIC Program – a groundbreaking study showing that women at small business investment companies (SBICs) play an important role in bridging the lending gap to women-owned firms.

The SBIC program is a multi-billion-dollar investment program that bridges the gap between entrepreneurs’ need for capital and traditional venture financing. SBICs match SBA guaranteed loans with their own funds and utilizes professional fund managers to identify and finance promising small businesses. With a current portfolio of $26 billion, the program has invested in some of our nation’s most iconic brands including Apple, Tesla, and FedEx.

Overall, the SBIC program has been successful, though it has failed to serve women and underrepresented individuals as well as it should. To better understand this challenge, SBA commissioned a report that found when women and underrepresented individuals are the investors, they are more likely to invest in firms like themselves.

The report also found greater gender diversity among SBIC investment teams than is present in the broader venture capital and private equity community. Nearly 12% of SBIC funds have women on their investment teams, compared to less than 8% in the private equity industries. While SBIC funds are reaching more women than private funds, it is still nowhere near enough.

As WIPP’s access to capital platform Breaking the Bank indicates, venture capital is still too elusive for women-owned firms. Venture capital is a classic “chicken and egg problem”, too few women serve on SBIC boards, which leads to the cyclic exclusion of women-owned firms from SBIC investments.

To increase the number of women and underrepresented individuals on SBIC and corporate boards SBA, LinkedIn, WIPP, and other partner organizations have created the Open Network for Board Diversity, or ONBOARD.

ONBOARD is an online platform that serves as an opportunity for women to be more involved in equity-based financing. By providing more opportunities for women to serve on corporate boards, we will increase opportunities for women-owned firms. To join ONBOARD, click here or by search “ONBOARD diversity” in the Linkedin search bar.

To learn more about ONBOARD please watch Give me 5: ONBOARD: Open Network for Board Diversity presented by SBA, and hosted by WIPP’s Chief Advocate, Ann Sullivan.

A Report Worth Reading

By John Stanford, WIPP Government Relations

Shortly after adding sole source authority to the WOSB program, WIPP’s Chief Advocate (and my boss, full disclosure) Ann Sullivan asked our policy team a simple question: what’s next?

Surely the much-needed improvements to the women’s procurement program we had spent the last fifteen years attaining were not the only steps needed to remove barriers women face in the federal market. The answer was straightforward, WIPP’s procurement portfolio would go onward, exploring more ways women entrepreneurs can bring innovation and value to the federal government.

The next question was not so simple. While anecdotes and intuition told us that the playing field was far from level, we lacked the data to point to the next set of systemic issues that limit access. “What are they and what can we do about them,” began a quest that reached a major milestone two weeks ago with the release of Do Not Enter, WIPP’s latest report about disparity in federal contracts.

The salient details are in the related one-pager with a full executive summary and findings in the formal report. I’ll refrain from re-digesting those documents here, but instead make a plea that you visit them. The key findings and recommendations will be the pillars of WIPP’s next push – ensuring that these mega-contracts are fair opportunities for women business owners.

Many people ask where an advocacy campaign truly begins; something that will ultimately lead to a new law or a change in regulations. At WIPP, it begins with our members. Tackling this issue would never have happened without women business owners communicating their struggles—far more than individual challenges, but instead ongoing concerns about disparities—to WIPP.

We listened. But compiling a few narratives from members will not move the needle in Washington. We needed data, analysis, and recommendations across regions and industries to garner the attention of policymakers. Enter this report. It is the launching point for a broad campaign to educate and change a contracting system that continues to leave women business owners at a disadvantage.

At WIPP’s Annual Leadership meeting earlier this month, we detailed the report to attendees and Congress. In follow up, a new WIPP member commented that she was thrilled WIPP would be taking on this issue. She described her feeling of helplessness as she lacked the voice to challenge her customer, but felt that she continued to have limited success because of the structure of her contracts. The barriers she faced could have come straight from the pages of this report.

While her story was compelling, new policies are not implemented because of individual experience. Simply put, Congress is little moved by lone stories of inequity. That is why, at WIPP, these kinds of efforts serve as a reminder that a team in Washington, backed by organizations and businesses across the country, stand shoulder to shoulder with you on these issues. Do Not Enter, and its ensuing efforts, should remind us all that no one is alone.

As the next chapter of WIPP’s advocacy for women business owners seeking access to the federal market begins, it does so not in the form of grand rhetoric or a press release, but spread out across dozens of pages of research and data confirming what we knew to be true: more work remains to be done to ensure women have a shot at the government’s largest contracts.

We hope you will join us in this fight.

You Need to Know: Court Rulings that Impact Federal Contracts

By: Debbie Kobrin, WIPP Government Relations

 

While most federal contract changes happen through Congressional action and agency rule-making, the constitutionality of small business contract practices has been subject to debate over the past several years. Below are two recent cases you should know about.

Rothe Development, Inc. v. U.S. Dept. of Defense et al.,

The U.S. Court of Appeals DC recently upheld the constitutionality of the SBA 8(a) program, designed to help individuals who are socially and economically disadvantaged compete on equal footing  with others in the U.S. economy . To meet that goal, the program provides qualifying small businesses with technical assistance, financial assistance, and assistance in awarding government contracts. The case addressed the programs definition of “socially disadvantaged” as a racial class that violates the right to equal protection under the Constitution. According to Rothe, when the government sets-aside a contract for an 8(a) firm, it unfairly prevents those who are not minority-owned from competing for the opportunity.

While the 8(a) program is colloquially referred to as the minority program, it is open to all socially and economically disadvantaged individuals. However, non-minority individuals must meet a different standard of eligibility.  While the law references specific groups, it does not do so, “as a floor for participation”. Rather, specific groups were mentioned to indicate the “kind of social disadvantage Congress had in mind: individuals’ experience of having suffered racial or ethnic prejudice or cultural bias because of their identity as a member of a group without regard to their individual qualities.”

 

WHAT IT MEANS FOR WOSBs

While the 8(a) program withstood the Rothe challenge, it is not expected to be the last. The WOSB program was structured to only include industries where women-owned firms are underrepresented in order to ensure it could withstand legal challenges. While having a set-aside program based on specific industries may appear limiting, the structure is designed to stand up to this type of legal challenge.

 

Kingdomware v. United States

Earlier this summer, a  unanimous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Kingdomware v. United States, requires the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to give a preference to veteran-owned small business for VA contracts. This is contingent upon having two or more small businesses that can meet the requirements — also known as the “rule of two.” This is a big win for all small contractors because the Court made clear that agency contract goals are a floor, not a ceiling. WIPP has advocated for many years for agencies to exceed the five percent goal. This case shows the power of small business goals.

 

WHAT IT MEANS FOR WOSBs

While the decision only applies directly to Veteran-Owned Small Businesses at the VA, SBA is conferring with the Department of Justice, other agencies, and the Federal Acquisition Regulatory (FAR) Council to discuss if further changes to regulations are needed. In the first small contracting case taken up by the Supreme Court, the message to agencies was loud and clear. The “rule of two” is a powerful tool for all small businesses seeking contracts in the federal marketplace and this decision lays the groundwork to ensure WOSBs are given a fair shot on schedule contracts.

Why Federal Contractors Will Probably Be Working This Labor Day

By John Stanford, WIPP Government Relations

The Department of Labor and FAR Council issued final regulations that require federal contractors to disclose labor violations from the past three years. This blog updates an earlier edition with what you need to know. For more details or if this impacts your business, I encourage you to read official guidance here.

Ahhhh, Labor Day. The unofficial end of summer. A century-old government-granted day off to squeeze in another day at the pool, buy the last of the school supplies (who really needs a protractor anyway?), see the grandparents, and now – for federal contractors – an opportunity to review your company’s legal history.

It doesn’t sound quite right, does it? But for thousands of federal contractors, that is exactly what newly finalized regulations mean. I will get into to the details and timeline of the new requirement in a moment, but first, a little history on a change WIPP has watched closely.

In 2014, President Obama issued an Executive Order with the goal of barring bad companies from winning federal contracts. The following summer the Labor Department (DOL) and the FAR Council (overseers of contracting rulebook, “the FAR”) proposed how this could be achieved. Last week, final rules were published – and contractors nationwide let out a collective groan.

You see, excluding companies with a history of bad acts from winning government work – a generally universally accepted idea – is not easy. WIPP said just that in our formal comment last year. We agreed that companies that follow the rules should not have to compete against companies that break them for federal contracts. But the proposed system would place burdens on women-owned contractors and dump paperwork requirements on contracting officers.

Our comment, along with hundreds from individual business owners and other trade groups, did little to sway the government from moving forward. The new requirement detailed below goes into effect on October 25, 2016.

The regulation requires federal contractors and subcontractors to disclose violations of 14 federal labor laws and the equivalent state laws from the previous three years. Exemptions were provided for companies with contracts valued less than $500,000. Prospective federal contractors will need to declare if they had labor violations in the previous three years when submitting an offer. During an initial evaluation, contracting officers will see that declaration (a simple “yes” or “no”), without any additional detail or explanation.

Later, if a contractor were likely to win an award, the contracting officer would have to decide if the contractor is a responsible company (a requirement of all government contracts already). It is in this phase that details like appeals, remediation, or mitigating factors could be explained. Contracting officers will attempt to identify companies with “serious”, “willful”, “repeated”, and/or “pervasive” violations and not award them contracts. Companies with minor violations could still be considered responsible and win contracts.

In what the government views as a compromise since their initial proposal, the system will be phased-in over the next two years. The DOL released the following timeline:

Phased-In Implementation Schedule

  • Week of September 12, 2016:Preassessment begins, through which current or prospective contractors may come to DOL for a voluntary assessment of their labor compliance history, in anticipation of bids on future contracts but independent of any specific acquisition.
  • October 25, 2016: Thefinal rule takes effect. Mandatory disclosure and assessment of labor law compliance begins for all prime contractors under consideration for contracts with a total value greater than or equal to $50 million. The reporting disclosure period is initially limited to one (1) year and will gradually increase to three (3) years by October 25, 2018.
  • January 1, 2017: The Paycheck Transparency clause takes effect, requiring contractors to provide wage statements and notice of any independent contractor relationship to their covered workers.
  • April 25, 2017: The total contract value threshold for prime contracts requiring disclosure and assessment of labor law compliance is reduced to $500,000.
  • October 25, 2017: Mandatory assessment begins for all subcontractors under consideration for subcontracts with a total value greater than or equal to $500,000.

 

Needless to say, our concerns remain. And before I go into a few of them, I would point out that the $50 million threshold sounds like a lot. It includes, however, companies on a multiple award contract with a ceiling amount above $50 million. Meaning a company that wins a BPA or IDIQ valued above $50 million, though not necessarily the amount of work the company will actually perform, will face the October 2016 deadline.

On a broader level, the rule simply is not ready for primetime. The Labor Department and FAR Council chose not to include what state labor law violations must be reported. It is impossible to gauge the impact of a regulation when missing significant portions.

What is in the rule, however, is equally concerning. In some cases, violations that require reporting will not be be fully adjudicated. That is, companies would have to report decisions against them that may ultimately be overturned – as nearly a third of NLRB decisions have been.

This is compounded by WIPP’s worry that simply having violations on record will “blacklist” companies without providing any opportunity to offer explanation. With limited resources and time, contracting officers may elect to avoid companies with any disclosed violations, despite the intent of the order to only bar violations of a certain severity.

Burdens on subcontractors are also being created. They must report violation history as well – directly to DOL. This was a notable change in the final rule, by making the subcontractor and the Labor Department engage each other, and not put the responsibility on the prime contractor.

At the same time the government has admitted it lacks the resources to answer all questions about weighing different labor violations from hundreds of thousands of subcontractors. Ultimately, this change could be the most damning, as many of these companies are unaware of the new requirements because they never sought business with the government in the first place.

Finally, the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces requirement is one of many in a disconcerting trend of new regulations that specifically target federal contractors. Earlier this year, regulations raised the minimum wage solely for workers on federal contracts. New requirements regarding sick leave were also released. These make contracting with the federal government more onerous, particularly for women entrepreneurs seeking to enter the market. At a time when we want more competition and innovation in government, policies impacting only federal contractors put up barriers for entry.

Without question, WIPP supports efforts by the federal government to rid the contracting environment of businesses with a history of abusive and neglectful violations. In doing so, the government levels the playing field for the millions of businesses playing by the rules. But the government already has those tools and this rule will not achieve this goal. Instead, it will be harder to be a contractor, pushing the innovative products and services of women-owned businesses out of the federal market.

So to the federal contractors out there gearing up for a warm holiday weekend, fire up those grills, wear that final white outfit, and head into the office – it’s going to be a busy day.

 

John Stanford is part of WIPP’s Government Relations team in Washington, D.C., specializing in federal procurement and healthcare policy. When not bothering lawmakers about needed changes, he can be found in the woods at local golf courses.