September 10, 2007
Complaints about the veterans’ hiring preferences for federal jobs have prompted a House panel to question if the Office of Personnel Management is up to the job of setting and enforcing the policy.
The House Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee on economic opportunity, with jurisdiction over veterans’ employment programs but not over federal personnel practices, was told that despite renewed emphasis on hiring veterans, many obstacles remain.
“On nearly a daily basis, my office receives inquiries from disabled veterans who believe their preference rights have been overlooked or ignored,” said Brian Lawrence of Disabled American Veterans.
Meg Bartley of the National Veterans Legal Service Program said her group has spent eight years reviewing and investigating veterans’ preference violations.
“Our conclusion, based on discussions with individual veterans, review of numerous complaints and participation in litigation concerning alleged veterans’ preference violations, is there are many violations of the spirit and the letter of veterans’ preference laws.”
Bartley identified three practices by some hiring managers that deprive veterans of what she called “even-handed” treatment:
• Canceling job postings to avoid hiring veterans who are the top candidates.
• Issuing complicated job listings — known as certificates — that allow multiple competitions for a single job.
• Filling jobs outside the normal competitive exam process where veterans’ preference would apply.
The law awards five points in a competitive review to most veterans and 10 points to veterans who have disabilities rated at 30 percent or more.
Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., subcommittee chairwoman, said she thinks something needs to be done because the veterans’ preference program is confusing and does not seem to be given the same emphasis in every federal agency.
Some argued that the outsourcing of some types of federal jobs, such as security guards, also hurts veterans.A representative of the American Federation of Government Employees said new physical training requirements weed out some veterans from jobs as government security guards. Mary Jean Burke, first executive vice president for the union’s National Veterans Affairs Council, said that when physical requirements were established, many employees were grandfathered or given waivers.
“Now, the Army, and ultimately [the Defense Department], are seeking to force these requirements on existing employees, many of whom are disabled veterans,” she said.
Roger Tadsen, a certified fraud examiner with the Air Force Audit Agency, described a 15-year battle to receive promotions that were instead going to people with less experience, ignoring the fact that as a 70 percent disabled veteran, he should have received special treatment.
“It has taken almost nine years for my promotion to GS-13. The average for the majority of others is three years or less,” said Tadsen, whose military career ended after 15 years when be became partially paralyzed after surgery.
Veterans’ preference laws apply to hiring and to handling of reductions-in-force but not to promotions, although there has been talk of adding promotions, transfers, reassignments and reinstatement to the situations where being a veteran would be a bonus.
AFGE’s Burke said even protections for reductions-in-force appear to have eroded because of new personnel rules being used by the Pentagon and Homeland Security Department.
An example, she said, would be if the Air Force eliminated jobs at a maintenance depot. Under new rules, an F-16 aircraft mechanic who is a disabled veteran could avoid a reduction-in-force by displacing a nonveteran working on another aircraft. New rules do not allow a switch between aircraft types.
Federal personnel officials admit there are problems, but say they seem to be isolated.
“The vast majority of federal agencies follow veterans’ preference requirements to the letter of the law,” insisted Anita Hanson, outreach group manager for the Office of Personnel Management.
“We typically do not see systemic violations of veterans’ preference across an entire agency,” she said. “When we do find problems, they tend to be isolated to a specific installation or organization and are typically caused by inadequate direction or lack of adequate accountability systems.”
She pointed out that, of the 456,000 veterans in the federal work force, 93,000 are disabled and 50,000 are rated at 30 percent or greater disability.
OPM doesn’t track cancelled job postings, she said, and keeping such a record would not reflect why a posting was changed.
Testimony from the Veterans Affairs Department, where 31 percent of employees are veterans, showed that progress does not come easy.
Willie Hensley, VA deputy assistant secretary for human resource management, said an average of 787 veterans are hired every month as a result of a strong recruiting drive. However, VA also is losing 810 veterans a month, some to retirement, some to other jobs. Vietnam veterans, in particular, are leaving in large numbers.
The Defense Department has 227,730 civilian workers who are veterans, 33,681 of them rated as 30 percent disabled or higher.
Patricia Bradshaw, deputy undersecretary of Defense for civilian personnel policy, said the military is trying to hire more veterans through a recruitment program called Hiring Heroes, with job fairs involving federal, state and local agencies.
“The fairs provide a unique environment where our service members can meet face-to-face with employment recruiters, learn firsthand about jobs and career choices and establish connections,” she said, noting that nine of the 11 job fairs held so far were at or near military hospitals so that wounded combat veterans and their families could attend.
Two agencies oversee veterans’ hiring rules: the Merit Systems Protection Board and the Veterans’ Employment and Training Service at the Labor Department.
John McWilliam, deputy assistant secretary of Labor for veterans’ employment and training, said most investigations of complaints about veterans’ preference tend to not find any problems. So far this fiscal year, the Labor Department has completed 335 investigations, only nine of which were found to have merit, he said.
Neil McPhie, Merit Systems Protection Board chairman, said the board has received 1,600 veteran-related complaints since 1998. Most concerned alleged failures by agencies to apply veterans’ preference points in hiring. He did not have statistics to show the outcome of cases.