STATEMENTS ON INTRODUCED BILLS AND JOINT RESOLUTIONS -- (Senate - December 13, 2007)
BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT
Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, more than 1.5 million of our servicemen and women have been sent to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other nations. We have mobilized more than 630,000 members of the National Guard and Reserves, including 92,000 who are on active duty right now.
These service men and women have courageously defended our country overseas, but tens of thousands of them have come home to find that they have lost their employment benefits or even their jobs, and the Government has failed to defend their rights.
Today, Senator Daniel Akaka and I are introducing legislation to guarantee that veterans won't have to wait years for the Government to act to restore their benefits or return to work.
Thirteen years ago, Congress enacted the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, specifically to protect our servicemembers when they return home. We understood that, to maintain strong focus and a strong National Guard and Reserves, servicemembers needed confidence that they could return to their civilian jobs when they came home from their tours of duty. That legislation was a clear promise that the Federal Government would step in and defend servicemembers who were wrongly denied their jobs or benefits. We pledged that the Department of Labor would investigate violations of the act, and that if employers refused to follow the law, the Attorney General would take employers to court to protect our servicemembers' rights.
Today, however, the administration has clearly broken that promise to enforce the law and get our veterans back to work.
Last month, during a Senate Committee hearing, I released a Department of Defense survey showing that for tens of thousands of veterans, their service to our country has cost them the salary they deserve, their health care, their pensions, or even their jobs. Among members of the Reserves and National Guard, nearly 11,000 were denied prompt reemployment. More than 22,000 lost seniority and rightful pay. Nearly 20,000 had their pensions reduced. More than 15,000 did not receive the training they needed to resume their former jobs. Nearly 11,000 did not get their health insurance back.
The problem is that employers aren't following the law, and Federal agencies aren't effectively enforcing it. Mr. President, 38 percent of servicemembers who asked the Department of Labor to defend their rights did not receive a prompt response. Servicemembers are forced to wait months or years even to find out whether the Government will agree to represent them and defend their rights. One veteran waited 7 years before the Department of Labor told him whether it would take his case to court. No veteran can afford to wait seven months to return to work or have his health insurance reinstated, let alone wait 7 years.
With these unbelievable delays, it is not surprising that 44 percent of servicemembers who asked the Department of Labor for help said that they were dissatisfied with the assistance they received. When servicemen and women hear about these delays, they ask themselves, ``Why should I even bother to ask for help.''
In fact, the Pentagon tells us that 77 percent of servicemembers whose rights are violated don't contact anyone to defend their rights. They simply give up. Nearly half of them say that they have no confidence that the Government will resolve their problems, or that it is just not worth the effort.
Even worse, a quarter of them don't even know where they can go for help. It is beyond dispute that the administration has broken its promise to help them.
Our veterans deserve better than this. They deserve to know that their Government is working as quickly as possible to get them back to work and restore their benefits.
The current law needs reform as well. It makes no sense to have four different agencies tracking the problems of our servicemembers in four different ways. We also need to know whether disabled veterans are being properly assisted in making their own difficult transition back to work.
It is time for the administration to keep its promise, and end the long delays for veterans who need help in defending their rights. The bill that Senator Akaka and I are introducing imposes timely and reasonable deadlines on Federal agencies to investigate complaints, to attempt to resolve them, and, if necessary, to refer them for litigation.
The legislation also makes the Federal enforcement of the law more transparent and responsive to the needs of veterans. It assures veterans that they won't have to wait years for an answer about whether they will receive the help they deserve.
By imposing timely deadlines on the Federal agencies, we are also stepping up the pressure on employers that violate the rights of our brave soldiers. With these new deadlines, employers won't be able to drag their heels as the Department of Labor spends months or years investigating violations. They will know that they have to settle each veteran's case quickly and fairly, or else face the U.S. Government in court.
The legislation also implements a number of reforms recommended by the Government Accountability Office--reforms that have received bipartisan support in the House of Representatives. In particular, our bill requires agencies to gather and report information on these cases in a uniform manner, so that we can understand trends and better address the needs of each servicemember. Agencies will also be required to report on cases involving veterans with disabilities, so that we have accurate information on the reemployment problems of our wounded soldiers.
Enacting this legislation alone obviously won't end the job discrimination that too many servicemembers face when they come home. But it will certainly improve the assistance they receive in obtaining the help they have earned and deserve.
Our legislation has the support of the Nation's largest veterans' organization, the American Legion, which emphasizes that the ``enforcement of veterans' employment and reemployment rights . . . can only be achieved through aggressive oversight and timely investigation.'' This legislation, the American Legion says, will ``strengthen veterans' employment and reemployment rights'' by imposing ``timely, realistic deadlines on Federal agencies to process'' their claims. We are proud to have the American Legion's support for this legislation.
We know we can never truly repay our veterans for their immense sacrifices. They have fought hard for our country, and it is up to us to fight just as hard for them when they return home to the heroes' welcome they so justly deserve. An important part of that welcome is keeping the promise that we made to them to protect their employment rights when they return.
That is what this legislation seeks to do, and I urge my colleagues to enact it as soon as possible.
BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT