One in 3 people hired into the federal government is a veteran, but the Obama administration’s aggressive push to reward those who served is causing confusion and resentment among job applicants and hiring staff.
That’s what federal officials and advocates for veterans told lawmakers at a House hearing Wednesday on how well the White House’s seven-year effort to push former service members to the head of the long federal hiring queue is working.
The veterans preference program is bringing record numbers of former soldiers into federal agencies. But experts acknowledged that the hiring process is generating tension and misunderstanding around who is qualified to jump the line.
“The bulk of the problem is a lack of understanding of the law,” Michael H. Michaud, assistant secretary for the Veterans’ Employment and Training Service at the Labor Department, told a panel of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
“It’s a very complex law,” Michaud said. “Some veterans think that because of veterans preference they will automatically be hired in the federal service. But you could have several very well-qualified candidates and they’re all vets, and one gets hired and the others don’t.”
The growing presence in government of men and women with military backgrounds is the biggest federal effort to reward military service since the draft ended in the 1970s. President Obama pushed agencies to increase hiring of veterans starting in 2009, in response to the bleak job prospects many soldiers faced after coming home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In 2015, 47.4 percent of new hires to full-time jobs were veterans, an increase of 1.3 percentage points over fiscal 2013, federal statistics released last year show.
The initiative has fueled tensions in federal offices, though, as civil servants and former troops clash over workplace culture and each other’s competence and qualifications. But the new rules on just getting into the government are, depending on who is talking, favoring unqualified veterans or bypassing qualified ones, officials said Wednesday.
Veterans benefit from preferential hiring for civil service jobs under a law dating to World War II. But the Obama administration increased the extra credit they get to give them an even greater edge in getting hired. The government has set hiring goals for veterans at each agency, and managers are graded on how many they bring on board, officials said.
The Labor Department received about 600 complaints in fiscal 2015 from veterans who were turned down for federal jobs across the government, Michaud said. Just 5.4 percent had merit, meaning the veteran should have been hired.
Under the rules, hiring managers are supposed to choose a veteran over a non-veteran as long as they are equally qualified for the job.
But it is nearly impossible to tell whether veterans who don’t get hired are the victim of bias by hiring managers, incompetence or simply were not as qualified as non-veterans competing for the same job, federal officials said Wednesday. An applicant must prove that a hiring manager “knowingly” passed him or her over to win an appeal if they are turned down.
“How do you discover if someone acted out of bounds on the rules knowingly?” asked Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) chairman of the House panel’s subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, which held the hearing.
The answer: You really can’t.
“You can satisfy every affirmative action in the book and hire vets, but you’re not going to get virtually any managers who have been disciplined or fired for violating the rules,” said Rick Weidman, head of government affairs for Vietnam Veterans of America. He said managers will not be punished for improper hiring practices “until you take the word ‘knowingly’ out of the law.”
Carin M. Otero, associate deputy assistant secretary for personnel planning at the Department of Veterans Affairs, told lawmakers that the government has intensified training for hiring officials in how to implement the veterans preference law. But lawmakers and advocates said the system is vulnerable to mistakes.
“People apply for a job and they don’t get the job, and there’s sort of a myth that veterans preference is a guarantee of any job in the federal government,” said Aleks Morosky, deputy director for legislation at the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“People are upset because they didn’t get hired, but they don’t necessarily understand the system either.”
Weidman said the problem is simple: Agencies often try to get around preference rules as part of a long history of discrimination against veterans.
“Racism and sexism are alive and well in our society, and so is vetism,” he said. “People don’t like us. They [dislike] that we became part of the culture of the federal bureaucracy and that [dislike] is still there.”