Several bills introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, including one that would force the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to comply with laws that protect veterans’ employment rights, were considered by The American Legion during its March 8 testimony before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity.
Steve Gonzalez, the Legion’s assistant economic director, testified at the hearing and submitted written testimony for the record. Noting that the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) became law in 1994, Gonzalez reminded the subcommittee that USERRA is designed to protect the civilian jobs of military reservists and National Guard members while they serve on active duty.
“However, due to one loophole in the law,” Gonzalez said, “there is one employer who is exempt from these provisions: the United States Transportation Security Agency. As an agency of the United States government, TSA has a responsibility to fully comply with the law and, according to USERRA, to be a ‘model employer’ in the protection of employment and reemployment rights of our nation’s veterans and reservists.” The Legions supports legislation (H.R. 3670) that would make TSA comply with provisions of USERRA.
One piece of House legislation The American Legion opposes is H.R. 3610: Streamlining Workforce Development Program Act of 2011.
Under this bill, 33 federal programs would be consolidated into four major funding streams, or Workforce Investment Funds, for state programs that benefit unemployed workers, disadvantaged youth, special populations such as Native Americans and migrant workers, and veterans.
The Veterans Workforce Investment Fund authorizes $218 million annually for fiscal years 2013-2018 to fund state employment and training services for those who have served in uniform. In comparison to the other three investment funds, Gonzalez said the one for veterans “will be underfunded, ill-equipped and a disservice” to those who try to use it. “Even though the key provision of this legislation is to address the overlapping program provided by the federal government, it does little, if anything, to address the differences in eligibility, objectives and service delivery to their respective clients. In this case, America’s veterans.”
Other pending legislation covered in the testimony — and supported by The American Legion — includes:
H.R. 3329: …to extend the eligibility period for veterans to enroll in certain vocational rehabilitation programs.Currently, the eligibility period for Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment benefits is 12 years from the date of separation from active duty, or from the date that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) notified a veteran of a service-connected disability rating. H.R. 3329 would extend this deadline to 15 years.
H.R. 3483: Veterans Education Equity Act of 2011.This bill would fix an unintentional problem created by the Veterans’ Education Equity Act of 2011, which placed a $17,500 per-year cap on benefits for student veterans attending private institutions. It also limited benefits for public schools to the tuition and fee rates that applied to state residents. For example, if Jack, a veteran who lives in Wisconsin, wants to enroll at the University of Illinois, he has to pay the difference for higher out-of-state tuition rates from his own pocket. With the passage of H.R. 3483, out-of-state students would also receive up to $17,500 in education benefits per academic year to cover their higher costs as nonresidents.
H.R. 3524: …to provide certain rights for persons who receive treatment for illnesses, injuries, and disabilities incurred in or aggravated by service in the uniformed services, and for other purposes.
While USERRA offers substantial job-market protections, it does not require employers to allow veterans with service-connected disabilities to be absent from their work in order to get medical treatment for those disabilities. Such veterans, according to Gonzalez, may often be the target of employment discrimination. H.R. 3524 would clarify and strengthen USERRA, requiring employers to accommodate workers who need medical treatment for their service-connected disabilities.
H.R. 4048: Improving Contracting Opportunities for Veteran-Owned Small Businesses Act of 2012.
According to 2007 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, veterans own or co-own 13.5 percent of all non-farm businesses in America. These small businesses employed 11 million people in 2007 and generated $1.65 trillion in receipts. But barriers exist that veteran entrepreneurs must overcome, Gonzalez said, including weak federal policies and rules, inadequate training, and a lack of outreach coordination among federal agencies. “Action must be taken to remove these barriers and ensure small businesses get access to federal contracts,” Gonzalez said.
One agency that could do a better job in awarding federal contracts to veteran-owned businesses, Gonzalez said, is the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). When qualified veteran-owned businesses “are being overlooked or ignored by the VA, this is cause for great concern.” The American Legion wants VA and the Small Business Administration to develop a comprehensive partnership to assist veterans with federal contract procurement.
“The VA is mandated by law,” Gonzalez said, “to purchase all products and services” from businesses owned by veterans or disabled veterans, as long as they “meet both legal and contract requirements. Any regulations, policies and procedures disseminated by the VA that deny (such) contracting preference and priority, as defined by the United States Court of Federal Claims, is a violation of law.”
H.R. 4051: TAP Modernization Act of 2012.
The Transition Assistance Program (TAP) was created to help servicemembers leaving active duty with their return to civilian society (about 160,000 men and women are discharged annually from the armed services). TAP needs an update, Gonzalez said, and H.R. 4051 “allows for veterans and their spouses to be better informed on education, employment and business opportunities once they transition into the civilian workforce, as well as provide information on military occupations that require licenses, certificates or other credentials at the local, state or national levels.”
HR. 4057: Improving Transparency of Education Opportunities for Veterans Act of 2012.
This bill aims to develop a comprehensive policy to improve outreach and transparency to veterans and members of the armed services by providing them with information about institutions of higher learning. Since the Post-9/11 GI Bill went into effect in August 2009, hundreds of thousands of veterans have taken advantage of its education benefits. In fiscal 2010, VA spent more than $5 billion on GI Bill benefits alone, with another $3 billion spent on other VA education programs.
Veterans and servicemembers are looking for more information on which to base their decisions about higher education, Gonzalez said, and policymakers want to assess the effectiveness of educational programs and measure the return on GI Bill investments.
H.R. 4072: Consolidating Veteran Employment Services for Improved Performance Act of 2012.
Many benefit and service programs for veterans are rooted in the World War II era and need to be overhauled for the 21st century, including the Department of Labor’s Veterans Employment Training Service (VETS), Gonzalez said. “The American Legion supports placing all DoL-VETS programs dedicated to serving veterans under the Department of Veterans Affairs,” thereby increasing the coordination between the various education, rehabilitation and employment programs whose goals are to enable veterans to successfully compete in the workforce.
“The American Legion finds that divided responsibility for employment assistance of veterans leaves neither DoL nor VA fully and completely accountable,” Gonzalez said, “because neither has ultimate control over program success or failure. As such, veterans will be served better if DoL-VETS were placed under the management of VA.”