By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 5, 2010; 8:33 PM
Everybody loves veterans.
Holidays are named for them. Parades are devoted to them. Politicians of all stripes make a public display of embracing them.
But when it gets right down to how Uncle Sam serves former service members, the picture can get murky.
Testimony submitted for a congressional hearing last week demonstrated that employment of veterans with companies that do business with the federal government is an area that leaves much to be desired.
The House Veterans' Affairs subcommittee on economic opportunity heard witness after witness describe serious weaknesses with the government's oversight and enforcement of affirmative action laws and regulations designed to promote employment of veterans with private contractors.
"Veterans are undergoing tough times in the area of employment," said Joseph C. Sharpe Jr., director of the American Legion's National Economic Commission. "With the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting unemployment for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan as high as 23 percent, the employment of veterans is a top issue. It is the duty of Federal contractors to comply with the law and employ veterans and disabled veterans."
He added that the employment of veterans "is directly affected by non-compliance from Federal contractors . . ." and that "veterans should be considered and hired first by these contractors and subcontractors who receive contracts from the Federal government."
Much of the testimony focused on the dull but important topic of paperwork.
Actually, a big problem, according to several witnesses, is the lack of paperwork connected to a report contractors are required to file on veteran hiring.
The report, known as VETS-100, is filed electronically.
It's an important report that gets to the heart of the hiring issue. Federal contractors use it to tell Uncle Sam how many vets they employ.
The Labor Department "has encouraged and promoted efforts to increase reporting, particularly through electronic submissions," Les Jin, deputy director of Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, told the panel.
Unfortunately, this may be a case in which advanced technology takes us backward.
Consider the comments witnesses offered at the hearing:
-"By far, the most helpful change would be a discontinuation of the practice of electronic employer submission of the VETS-100." - Richard F. Weidman, of Vietnam Veterans of America.
-"AMVETS believes the current VETS-100 serves no meaningful purpose to the federal contracting system." - Christina M. Roof, AMVETS deputy legislative director.
-Many "veterans' advocates believe noncompliance with the filing of the VETS-100 is rampant, since there is little, if any, consequence to noncompliance in the program." - Sharpe, of the American Legion.
-"Staff tells me that the VETS-100 report is widely known to be merely a paperwork exercise that is largely ignored once it reaches Washington." - Rep. John Boozman (Ark.), the subcommittee's top Republican.
But official Washington doesn't see it that way.
Jin said Labor's Veterans' Employment and Training Service "is streamlining reporting by firms and enhancing the agency's data validation. Electronic filings have increased dramatically over the past five years." In 2009, more than 90 percent of the reports were submitted electronically.
And Jan R. Frye, a deputy assistant Veterans Affairs secretary, said VA contracting officers rely on the electronic reporting to ensure that contractors are compliant with program requirements.
"We believe the data are sufficient to provide the necessary insight," Frye said.
Insight. What about oversight?
"The inexcusable lack of oversight and enforcement of compliance is resulting in lost employment opportunities for veterans," Roof said. "As of mid-2010, more than 1.3 million veterans were unemployed. Astoundingly, more veterans are unemployed than are currently serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan. This sad reality should be reason enough for VA to immediately develop and implement a program, even if only temporary, designed to identify and remove any contractor taking jobs away from our veterans."
Poor oversight of contractors is a problem shared by agencies throughout government. As Uncle Sam dished more and more work to contractors during the Bush administration, his corps of contract managers and overseers remained flat or fell. Under Bush, Jin said, "OFCCP saw its staff reduced by 28 percent."
Things now are changing. In the past 16 months, he added, the staff has grown 35 percent, mostly from the hiring of 200 contract compliance officers.
Veterans advocates say the VETS-100 reports should be signed by local veterans employment representatives to help ensure that the required outreach to veterans is being done. The advocates also want the reports to include the name, signature, position and contact information of the contractor's affirmative action officer and proof of where and when job openings were posted.
Veterans, Weidman said, deserve "a leg up in hiring and promotion in business that profit from government business."