Federal hiring ruling goes in veterans' favor
Just in time for Veterans Day, the Merit Systems Protection Board has sharply undercut a federal hiring program, saying it violates the employment preference Uncle Sam gives to those who have served in uniform.
The MSPB decision last week is a victory for organized labor, which has long complained that some agencies use the Federal Career Intern Program to circumvent the statutory preference given to veterans seeking U.S. government employment.
The program has been the target of much high-level attention, including a union lawsuit against it and congressional hearings. At President Obama's direction, the Office of Personnel Management has evaluated the program and made confidential recommendations to him about it.
Yet for all of that, it was a tenacious Department of Veterans Affairs file clerk in Columbia, S.C., Larry Evans, who threw what could be a major blow to the way the program functions.
It was his case against the VA, and another brought by David Dean against OPM, that led MSPB to find "a violation of appellants' veterans' preference rights" in the operation of the intern program.
The decision has serious implications for a program widely used by some agencies to fill vacancies.
"Since 2003, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has used FCIP as its exclusive method for hiring all incoming customs and border protection officers," Maureen Gilman, legislative director of the National Treasury Employees Union, told Congress in May. Other agencies use the program to hire financial experts, tax collectors, engineers, claims representatives, accountants and contracting specialists.
To Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, the widespread use of the program is an indication of how valuable it is. But if its days are numbered, he said, "the critical thing is to move to an alternative quickly." (The nonprofit Partnership has a content-sharing relationship with The Washington Post).
About 15 percent of FCIP hires are veterans, compared with 25 percent in the federal workforce generally. Since 2003, the number of FCIP employees has jumped from 400 to 27,000.
"Untold numbers of veterans are potentially being shut out of job opportunities for which they would have preference because the agencies are filling the positions under FCIP without public notice," MSPB said.
That's odd, or at least should be, since veterans' preference does apply to the intern program. Because it is part of the "excepted service," positions filled through the intern program do not have to be publicly advertised, as is the case with jobs in the "competitive service."
That lack of advertising, which hindered the preference, is what led to the violation of the veterans' rights, said Jim Green, a former OPM lawyer.