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More Government Ridiculousness: FCC Decision Violates Own Policies, Threatens American Jobs

So last Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) handed down an otherwise non-newsworthy Declaratory Ruling.

Except that the ruling has tremendous impact on companies that provide relay services for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

There are a number of such companies, who provide the service for free to their customers, and get reimbursed by the government for minutes our customers use. The money comes from a fund established by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and controlled by the FCC.

In its ruling, the FCC ruled that any relay calls made by deaf or heard-of-hearing employees working at a relay service company are not reimbursable.

The ruling states”

First, we emphasize that VRS calls made by or to a VRS provider’s employee, or the employee of a provider’s subcontractor, are not eligible for compensation from the TRS Fund on a per-minute basis from the Fund, but rather as business expenses.

So if you call a deaf employee of a VRS provider, or a deaf employee calls you, those minutes are not reimbursable despite the fact that the fund (and service) is to provide a communication tool for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

As a friend of mine points out,

Freedom of choice issues aside, the second part of the ruling is the kicker: they have decided that they should not have been reimbursing these calls to begin with (contrary to their thus-far standing rules) so they are mandating that relay service providers give them back pay for these minutes. In addition, they will not pay any further minutes until this sum is paid.

My friend went on to make this analogy:

your company’s Board decides that it will not reimburse any flights on your work-related trips. It also then decides that a) they want previously reimbursed flights to be paid back by you, so you personally owe them $50,000 and b) until you pay them that amount, they won’t issue you or any of your coworkers a paycheck.

As one can imagine, most companies – especially small businesses – don’t have millions on hand for such a required payback. Consequently, a number of firms that provide these essential services to the deaf and hard-of-hearing will conceivably go bankrupt.

Unfortunately, the FCC has a black eye due to fraud within the industry. Recently they busted Viable, a relay provider, for behavior by their employees to pad call minutes. So it’s easier said than done to convince them of anything.

It is extremely important that a) the FCC release funds they owe legitimate relay providers for December minutes (and continue paying regularly) and b) the FCC understand the ramifications of the ruling going forward. If (b) doesn’t work, then providers will need to deal with the bill the FCC just handed down for back payments. A bill that could conceivably risk the collapse of a number of American businesses.

Now don’t get me wrong: I applaud the FCC going after companies like Viable that purposely commit fraud.

However, in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, does it make any sense at all to place a punitive tax on companies that correctly and legally followed the FCC’s original determination on VRS? Especially when such a decision could cause many of those companies to close down as a result?

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