The Office of Special Counsel took an average of five months to resolve claims by federal employees that their bosses denied them job rights related to their service in the National Guard and reserves, a new report says.
The Government Accountability Office found this month that the special counsel took an average of 145 days to process 59 employee claims over the past four fiscal years. The special counsel's mission includes investigating cases in which federal employees may have been discriminated against because of their service in the reserves, the National Guard or other uniformed services.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who requested the GAO study, said yesterday that the report showed that officials have taken too long to process such claims.
"They're putting their lives on the line for our country, and it's outrageous that the Office of Special Counsel treats them so cavalierly when they return to their civilian jobs and are denied the pay and benefits they are owed," Kennedy said in a statement.
Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch, a Bush appointee who took office in January, after the time period studied by the GAO, said in a statement that he has instructed his staff to make such claims one of the agency's highest priorities. Bloch said he was "particularly disturbed . . . at the apparent neglect and unnecessary delays pertaining to the resolution" of such claims, which are filed under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).
"In short, USERRA is back on the map at OSC under my leadership; and we are stressing protection of USERRA rights for our brave service members at every turn," Bloch said.
The act prohibits discriminating against workers because of their military service. It ensures that veterans, reservists and members of the National Guard and other uniformed services can return to their civilian jobs -- in both government and the private sector -- after being absent because of military commitments.
Although the law has been on the books since 1994, the issue has taken on a higher profile lately because many military members serving in the war in Iraq are expected to return to the civilian workforce over the coming months. The GAO report examined only claims involving federal workers, whose complaints are handled by the Department of Labor and, if necessary, by the special counsel.
The law does not specify a time frame for the special counsel to process employee claims, and the agency is given some of the hardest cases to resolve.
Under the law, federal workers with military duty can file claims with the Department of Labor's Veterans' Employment and Training Service if they believe their employment rights have been violated. If Labor officials cannot resolve the matter, the employee can request that it be handed over to the special counsel, which performs its own analysis to determine whether the claim has merit.
Of the 59 cases the special counsel processed from fiscal 1999 through fiscal 2003, the agency determined that only five claims had merit -- and won corrective action from the relevant federal agency in each case.
In 2003, for example, the special counsel persuaded the Department of Veterans Affairs to award back pay with interest, plus extra annual and sick leave and seniority, to an employee who said the department did not promptly hire her back after her military service.
The OSC has taken several steps to process cases more quickly. In April, the agency created a team of lawyers who specialize in such claims to give these cases a higher priority. OSC officials also have sought to get involved with difficult cases while they are still being processed by the Labor Department. And they have asked Congress to permit the agency to seek disciplinary, rather than merely corrective, action against federal supervisors.
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Kennedy, acknowledged that the agency has made progress but said officials must show they can process such cases more quickly.
"It's unfortunate that they haven't given these cases the priority they deserve, but these recent steps are headed in the right direction," he said.