Hearing of the Economic Opportunity Subcommittee of the House Veterans Affairs Committee - Veterans Jobs Bills
HEARING OF THE ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY SUBCOMMITTEE OF THE HOUSE VETERANS AFFAIRS COMMITTEE
SUBJECT: VETERANS JOBS BILLS
CHAIRED BY: REP. STEPHANIE HERSETH SANDLIN (D-SD)
WITNESSES: PANEL I: REP. BOB FILNER (D-CA); REP. SHEILA JACKSON-LEE (D-TX); REP. STEVE ISRAEL (D-NY); REP. PETER WELCH (D-VT); REP. LLOYD DOGGETT (D-TX) PANEL II: JUSTIN BROWN, LEGISLATIVE ASSOCIATE, VETERANS OF FOREIGN WARS NATIONAL LEGISLATIVE SERVICE; CHERYL BEVERSDORF, PRESIDENT AND CEO, NATIONAL COALITION FOR HOMELESS VETERANS; JOHN WILSON, ASSOCIATE NATIONAL LEGISLATIVE DIRECTOR, DISABLED AMERICAN VETERANS; MARK WALKER, ASSISTANT DIRECTOR, THE AMERICAN LEGION'S ECONOMIC COMMISSION; THOMAS ZAMPIERI, DIRECTOR OF GOVERNMENT RELATIONS, BLINDED VETERANS OF AMERICA PANEL III: KEITH WILSON, DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF EDUCATION SERVICE, VETERANS BENEFITS ADMINISTRATION; PATRICK BOULAY, CHIEF, USERRA UNIT, U.S. OFFICE OF SPECIAL COUNSEL
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REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. The Committee on Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity hearing on pending legislation will come to order. (Strikes gavel.)
I would like to call attention to the fact that the committee -- full committee's ranking member, Mr. Steve Buyer, and Congressman Rodney Alexander have asked to submit written statements for the hearing record. If there is no objection, I ask for unanimous consent that their statements be entered for the record. (No audible response.) Hearing no objection, so entered.
I ask unanimous consent that all members have five legislative days to revise and extend their remarks and that written statements be made part of the record. (No audible response.) Hearing no objection, so ordered.
Today we have 10 bills before us that seek to establish a voluntary fund to assist homeless veterans; create a scholarship program for students seeking an education in the areas of visual impairment, orientation and mobility; expand VR&E subsistence allowance; protect wounded veterans in the workforce; create a program for veterans to meet the needs of the current job market; establish a five-year pilot project to assist veterans seeking training on the purchase of a franchise enterprise; expand Chapter 33 housing benefits to veterans taking distance learning courses; improve training for those required to take National Veterans Training Institute core training; authorize the Office of Special Counsel to review certain USERRA cases; and re-authorize the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program.
Let me say a bit more about two of these bills. Some in the room today will recall at least two subcommittee hearings we held in the last Congress highlighting the responsibilities of Veteran Outreach Program specialists and Local Veteran Employment Representative staff, which are primarily administered through state employment agencies and the U.S. Department of Labor.
While several recommendations were highlighted, one recommendation was to change DVOP and LVER training requirements at NVTI from the current three-year time frame to one year from the date of employment. Unfortunately, the current core training requirements failed to meet the needs of veterans by permitting DVOP and LVER to assist veterans when they don't have the proper training to effectively assist the veterans they seek to help.
Recognizing the need to have properly trained DVOP and LVER staff, I introduced H.R. 1088, the Mandatory Veterans Specialist Training Act of 2009. This legislation would require DVOPs and LVERs to be trained for their position within one year from the date of employment. I look forward to receiving comments from the Department of Labor and veterans service organizations on this important legislation.
Another bill that I introduced as a result of a previous hearing in the last Congress is H.R. 1089, the Veterans Employment Rights Realignment Act of 2009.
On February 13th of 2008, this subcommittee held a hearing on review of expiring programs. Pursuant to Public Law 108-454, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel began receiving and investigating certain federal sector USERRA claims on February 8th, 2005, and sunset on December 31st, 2007, after congressional intervention extending the original sunset.
This law gave OSC authority to investigate federal sector USERRA claims brought by persons whose Social Security numbers end in an odd number digit. Under the project OSC received and investigated all federal sector USERRA claims containing a related prohibited personnel practice allegation, over which OSC has jurisdiction regardless of the person's Social Security number.
In the hearing we received testimony from several veterans service organizations and the Office of Special Counsel that outlined the results that have increased the Department of Labor's effectiveness by decreasing their turnaround rate for pending USERRA cases.
Protecting our nation's service members and veterans from potential workforce discrimination is an issue I will continue to address in this Congress.
I now recognize the distinguished ranking member of the subcommittee, Mr. Boozman, for any opening remarks he may have.
REP. JOHN BOOZMAN (R-AK): Thank you, Madame Chair.
I appreciate the opportunity that we are bringing several pieces of legislation before the subcommittee, including my bill, H.R. 1171, the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program Reauthorization Act of 2009.
As you know, the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program, or HVRP, has been cited by GAO as an example of a successful program designed to put homeless veterans back to work. It is a relatively inexpensive program, funded last year at about $26 million, that provides grants to community-based providers serving the homeless veteran population.
VA now estimates that about 154,000 veterans are homeless, a level down well from the -- down well from over 200,000 just a few years ago. I believe that HVRP has played an important role in reducing the homeless veterans population by putting them back to work. And I congratulate the Veterans Employment and Training Service and all their grantees for that success.
And I'm also looking forward to hearing the testimony from the National Coalition Of Homeless Veterans' executive director, Ms. Beversdorf, on the state of the homeless community.
I would also note that we have a number of excellent bills on the -- on today's agenda. And I want to thank you, Madame Chair, and your staff for bringing forth two very, very good bills -- H.R. 1088 and H.R. 1089.
I yield back my -- the balance of my time.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Thank you, Mr. Boozman.
I would now like to welcome our colleagues who are testifying on our first panel before the subcommittee today. Joining us are Mr. -- Congressman Steve Israel of New York and Congressman Peter Welch of Vermont. We thank you for the bills that you've introduced that we're considering in this hearing today.
The chairman of the full committee is also en route, and so I may, depending on his schedule -- we'll start with you, Mr. Israel. But, Mr. Welch, if the chairman of the full committee arrives, we'll defer to him for his testimony on his bill before turning it over to you.
So we'll go ahead, Mr. Israel, and begin. You're recognized for five minutes.
REP. ISRAEL: Thank you, Madame Chair and Ranking Member Boozman and members of the subcommittee.
I have introduced H.R. 147, which establishes on the federal income tax form a check off for homeless veterans similar to the check off for contributions to the presidential campaign.
One of the deep concerns that I know we all have is the issue of homeless veterans, but not everyone is aware of just how serious the problem is. Tonight in America 154,000 veterans will be homeless. At one -- at any point in a veteran's life, about 300,000 experience homelessness over the course of a year. And the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimates that one out of every three homeless men sleeping in a doorway, an alley, or a box in our cities and rural communities have served in the military.
H.R. 147 creates a section on the annual tax return form that would allow taxpayers to designate $3 of their income tax liability to programs that assist homeless veterans without increasing the taxpayer's tax liability. It is patterned after the presidential campaign check off, which has worked very effectively.
H.R. 147 creates a homeless veterans assistance fund within the Treasury Department, where the contributed money would automatically be deposited and safeguarded by the Treasury, and expenditures from the fund would have to be appropriated. The bill stipulates that funds can only be used for the purpose of providing assistance to homeless veterans.
We introduced the bill last year with the support of national veterans organizations. In the Senate, Senator Hillary Clinton sponsored it last year as a companion bill. This year we have 41 bipartisan co-sponsors. And once again, I'm pleased to report that the national veterans organizations such as the American Legion and the Veterans Of Foreign Wars have endorsed the bill.
I thank the chairwoman for the time and be pleased to answer any questions.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Thank you, Mr. Israel.
Mr. Welch, you're recognized.
REP. WELCH: Thank you very much, Madame Chair and members of the committee.
I am here with a reintroduction of a bill that I worked on last year with this committee, Mr. Boozman, and I'm delighted this year that Mr. Teague is joining as a co-sponsor.
We're calling it MOST, and it is about trying to give employment opportunities to military veterans. And very specifically, what this bill would do is help find -- help veterans find good paying jobs.
And what this committee knows more than anything else is that the real desire of our veterans when they return is to reintegrate into their lives, productive lives, where they're raising their families, paying their bills, and feeling good because they've got employment that make a difference for them.
The MOST program is designed to target veterans who are unemployed or underemployed or had a military occupation specialty that may not have adequately trained them for reentry into the civilian force. You know there's a lot of skills, as you -- again, you know -- I'm preaching to the choir here -- that are enhanced in the military. But also there are certain skills that are specific to the military that don't easily transfer. So we've got to help those folks get jobs.
The VA has estimated that MOST would serve up to about 3,000 veterans every year. It would provide employers with 50 percent or $20,000 of a veteran's wages while he or she was going through that training period. And of course, that's a big boost for our employers, who are on the knife-edge as to whether or not they're going to hire anybody. And they may want to hire a veteran, but then when they're going to have the training period, which is a very expensive time for the employer, helped by the taxpayer, that's going to make a difference in those decisions.
Well, H.R. 929 grew out of the SMOCTA program, whose reauthorization this committee supported, and the House of Representatives accepted your recommendation last year. We didn't get it through the Senate -- same old story -- but we're back to try again.
And while H.R. 6272 is a straight reauthorization of part of the '93 Defense Authorization Act, this bill, H.R. 929, was changed in the subcommittee markup to increase the amount that could be -- could be paid to employers and for other reasons.
Finally, just a personal note, Madame Chair. I so appreciate working with you and the ranking member. It's just delightful in Congress, with all the noise out there about partisanship and how there's back-and-forth, that we have a committee majority and a committee minority and staff who put the veterans first.
And it's really -- I wish you guys were in the Congress. I mean, that's really well -- you're doing a great job. (Laughter.) Well, it is. I was a new member last year. I had an idea. Actually, you know, you were ahead of me on it, and you just made -- anybody in Congress last year, in our class, who had an idea to try to help our veterans, you wanted to hear it and evaluate it and act on it. So it -- it's just an example of the way we ought to operate around here, and I thank you.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Thank you, Mr. Welch. And we appreciate the vote of confidence.
And Mr. Israel, thank you both for these important bills. We're pleased to consider them today. And again, we appreciate -- in working closely together to advance the bills, we appreciate the work, Mr. Welch, you put into the bill last Congress. We hope to continue to make headway both in this chamber and the other this Congress.
And again we appreciate, Mr. Israel, your very important bill, one that we agree the American public would respond to. So again, we're pleased to consider it.
I don't have any questions for either of my colleagues, but I believe Mr. Boozman may have one question.
REP. BOOZMAN: The only -- (off mike) -- I'm sorry. We had it on. I need to be careful what I'm saying up here. (Laughter.)
The -- anyway, I guess one of the concerns -- I -- you know, I think your idea's a good one, and I really want to commend you on that.
I guess a concern is, what do we do if the -- if we do this and then the appropriators, in looking and considering -- you know, that this amount of money is coming in for that, and then they arbitrarily cut back that amount of money, so we're -- I guess that's the only concern that I have, is can we, you know, think of a -- some sort of a way to prevent that from happening, with -- can you comment on that for me?
REP. ISRAEL: Sure, Mr. Boozman. Thank you.
As an appropriator -- (laughs) -- I understand exactly where you're coming from. And in fact --
REP. BOOZMAN: No, I understand. Again, you've got a -- sort of a tough -- well, you've got a very tough -- you know, you've got a tough job, and you've got very limited resources, and --
REP. ISRAEL: You're right. You're right. The bill is currently written so that the funds would actually be deposited in a separate account at the Department of the Treasury. And the Department of -- the secretary of Treasury would have to promulgate regulations with respect to how to allocate the funds.
Now, if you choose to advance this bill in any markup, we would leave it to your discretion to ascertain what -- the best way of ensuring that those funds are absolutely frozen in a separate account and disbursed. So we would leave it to your discretion.
REP. BOOZMAN: Well, as an appropriator, you could -- you could give us some good advice, you know, regarding that, because again, you know, I think that is a concern that we would have.
And then Mr. Welch, we appreciate you -- with your bill, and really are going to work with you and see what we can do. The -- I think there's a little bit of concern about just administering the program and how you'd do that.
So like I say, we'll be glad to work with you.
REP. WELCH: Right. And I defer to your judgment on that, because I know the committee has expertise, and I take your concerns about that as ones that are intended to try to make it work. Thank you.
REP. BOOZMAN: Well, thank you. Thank both of you very much.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Mr. Adler?
REP. ADLER: I guess I wanted to comment on what Mr. Boozman said a moment ago. Frankly, Mr. Israel, I'm hoping that your bill gets considered, because it -- there's a public service value just to having it out there to remind America that we have not yet met the needs of our heroes, many -- too many of whom are homeless.
I'm actually frankly hopeful that Mr. Welch's measure and the GI Bill for the 21st Century make your bill moot in the very near term and we don't have homeless veterans because we've met their medical needs, met their disability claims or the psychological needs, and get -- got them the education and the opportunities for work that they deserved.
And so we want to put you out of business in that narrow capacity. Good luck with the bill, though.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Thank you, Mr. Adler.
REP. TEAGUE: No, I don't have anything to say now. Thank you.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Thank you both for taking the time out of your busy schedules to be here and discuss your bills.
REP. ISRAEL: Thank you.
REP. WELCH: Thank you.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: And we'll look forward to working with you further. Thank you both.
The chairman of the full committee is on his way, actually, so we're going to wait for a couple more minutes, awaiting his testimony, so we'll sort of -- in recess here for a few minutes -- make sure the ranking member's microphone's off.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: We'll go ahead and at least get our second panel invited up to the table.
When the chairman of the full committee arrives, he'll join us here on the dais, and we'll recognize him when he arrives, for purposes of explaining his bill.
So now I would like to invite the following individuals to join us at the witness table: Mr. Justin Brown, legislative associate, National Legislative Service for the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States; Ms. Cheryl Beversdorf, president and CEO of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans; Mr. John Wilson, associate national legislative director for the Disabled American Veterans; Mr. Mark Walker, assistant director, Economic Commission for the American Legion; and Dr. Thomas Zampieri, director of Government Relations for the Blind and Veterans Association.
In the interest of time and courtesy to all the panelists here today, we ask that you limit your testimony to five minutes, focusing on your comments and recommendations. Keep in mind your entire written statement has been entered into the committee record.
So, Mr. Brown, we'll start with you. You're recognized for five minutes.
MR. BROWN: Thank you, Madame Chair, Ranking Member Boozman.
On behalf of the 2.2 million members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States and our auxiliaries, I would like to thank this committee for the opportunity to testify.
The issues under consideration today are of great importance to our members and the entire veteran population.
During this economic recession, the number of unemployed veterans has increased to nearly 850,000 as of January 2009. That is an increase of nearly one-quarter of a million veterans since last November, and an increase of more than 400,000 since last April.
Of these unemployed veterans, nearly 100,000 are veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Clearly, veterans are not exempt from the current economic crisis, and we appreciate this committee's ambition in addressing these issues.
The VFW is thankful for the tax incentive provisions in the economic stimulus, which will aid recently separated servicemembers in locating employment. It's a smart policy, and we hope that businesses find a value and an added incentive to hiring our nation's newest combat veterans.
However, while we laud this provision, we are also worried that the infrastructural spending provisions of the stimulus will allow circumvention of the Jobs for Veterans Act of 2002. What this means for veterans is that contractors that receives stimulus money via state grants in excess of $100,000 will not be held accountable to the requirements outlined in the Jobs for Veterans Act.
In particular, contractors receiving stimulus money may be bypassing reporting requirements for open employment positions and the annual filing requirement known as the Vets 100, which identifies affirmative action issues in regards to veteran hiring practices and tracks veteran employment percentages.
Also, in recent news, the new budget as proposed by President Obama could increase the federal workforce by 100(,000) to 250,000 employees. Regardless of the end number, we would hope to see a large number of America's unemployed veterans fill this new workforce.
We are thankful that the federal government has increased its veterans' and disabled veterans' percentage of new hires in the previous five years. In fiscal year 2007, 22.7 percent of all new federal hires were veterans, and 5.7 percent were disabled veterans. Veterans' federal employment preference is working, and we hope to see it continue to do so with the new jobs created by an increased budget in the economic stimulus. If the federal government maintains or exceeds its hiring rate of 22.7 percent, this would equate into 20(,000) to 60,000 new veteran jobs and drastically cut the total unemployment of the veteran population.
As America's largest group representing combat veterans, we thank you for allowing the Veterans of Foreign Wars to present its views on these bills. The number of unemployed veterans has nearly doubled. Our veterans employment programs and resources will be pushed to their limits, and now more than ever we need them to perform.
Madame Chairwoman, this concludes my testimony, and I will be pleased to respond to any questions you or the members of the subcommittee may have. Thank you.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Thank you very much, Mr. Brown.
Ms. Beversdorf, you're now recognized.
MS. BEVERSDORF: Chairwoman Herseth Sandlin, Ranking Member Boozman, members of the subcommittee, as a representative of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, I am pleased to be invited to provide our views on several bills that have been referred to your subcommittee for consideration.
Of the 10 bills that you cited, I will restrict my comments to H.R. 147, which would amend the Internal Revenue Code to allow taxpayers to designate a portion of their income tax payment to provide assistance to homeless veterans, and H.R. 1171, which would amend Title 38 U.S. Code to reauthorize the Homeless Veteran Reintegration Program for fiscal years 2010 through 2014.
Before providing comments on these two bills, I'd like to talk briefly about the issues of homelessness among veterans and why more funding for programs, services and housing are needed to address this tragedy. Studies have shown that veterans are at a greater risk of becoming homeless due to a number of factors. These include uniquely military skills not needed in the civilian sector, combat-related health issues, minimal income, due to unemployment, shortage of safe, affordable housing.
Most veterans who are currently homeless served during prior conflicts or in peacetime. However, according to a 2008 Rand Corporation study, nearly 20 percent of military service members who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan -- 300,000 in all -- report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. Yet only slightly more than half have sought treatment.
This new generation of combat veterans, both men and women, also suffer from other war-related conditions, including traumatic brain injuries, which, of course, put them at risk for homelessness. Women veterans report serious trauma histories and episodes of physical harassment and/or sexual assault while in the military. VA and homeless veterans service providers are also seeing increased numbers of female and male veterans with children seeking their assistance.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there are an estimated 154,000 veterans who were homeless on any given night, which is actually a 40 percent reduction since 2001.
If this trend towards reducing the number of homeless veterans is to continue, more funding is needed for supportive services, employment and housing options to ensure veterans who served prior to and during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars can live independently and with dignity.
Now about the two bills. H.R. 147. NCHV sincerely appreciates Representative Israel's concern for homeless men and women veterans and the need to provide them with assistance. We represent community- based organizations in 46 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Guam that offer this support every day by providing the full continuum of care to both homeless veterans and their families.
However, to address the needs of veterans who are currently homeless and also help the homeless and at-risk OEF/OIF veteran population who are seeking help at VA medical centers and community- based organizations, again, additional funding is necessary.
We believe that the Homeless Veteran Assistance Fund could be a major resource from which community-based organizations could seek funds to provide more supportive services and housing to these veterans. However, if H.R. 147 is enacted, we believe that additional attention needs to be given to how the fund will be managed and administered, in addition to what the compliance requirements will be for the organizations that actually receive the funds.
NCHV believes that veterans are citizens first. The people of this country have a responsibility to show respect and gratitude to the men and women who have served the military. Enactment of H.R. 147 would give all Americans an opportunity to thank these former warriors for their service by making contributions to a fund that would help those men and women who need assistance as they return to civilian life.
Now about H.R. 1171. Regarding this bill, first of all NCHV wants to thank Representative Boozman and Buyer for introducing this bill.
The HVRP program is actually the only federal program which is wholly dedicated to providing employment assistance to homeless veterans. This program is unique, and, as Mr. Boozman said, highly successful, because it doesn't fund employment services per se, but rather it rewards organizations that guarantee job placement.
In 2008, DOL reported that 65 percent of homeless veterans served through HVRP entered employment, and 72 percent of them retained employment at the 90-day mark. In fact, in fiscal year 2009, for $25.6 million, the funding would provide approximately 15,330 veterans with employment.
What does that cost? Per participant, $1,670; per placement, $2,407. These costs represent a tiny investment for moving a veteran out of homelessness and off of dependency on public programs.
In anticipation of the new wave of men and women veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who may become homeless and will need effective employment programs to ensure their economic stability, reauthorization of the HVRP program as stated in H.R. 1171 is (imperative ?).
Conclusion: NCHV appreciates the opportunity to submit its views to the subcommittee regarding these two bills. And of course, we look forward to continuing to work with you to ensure our federal government does what is needed to prevent and end homelessness among our -- (off mike).
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Thank you, Ms. Beversdorf.
I would now like to welcome to the dais the gentleman from Texas, Mr. Doggett, and recognize him for purpose of discussing his bill, H.R. 466, the Wounded Veteran Job Security Act.
REP. LLOYD DOGGETT (D-TX): Thank you, Madame Chair and Mr. Boozman, members of the subcommittee. I apologize for being late. I chaired the Texas delegation, and you know everybody talks slow down there in the South, and I couldn't get out.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN (?): (Laughs.)
REP. DOGGETT: I am -- I believe I've covered it really in my written testimony and, fortunately, the attachments to it that include letters of support from a number of the groups that are represented here, the Legion, the VFW and the Disabled American Veterans.
My interest in this piece of legislation grew from a contact from a constituent and problems that he felt had occurred in gaps in the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act with which this Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity is very familiar -- basically, a situation with some employers that they found were not saying that their denial of job rights to a returning veteran was because of that veteran's absence in service or because of an injury that the veteran had suffered, but because the veteran required medical care and frequent visits in that regard.
One example that I got was of a Texan who suffered a serious back injury when his humvee rolled over in Iraq. And when he returned home and went back to the job, he was told that his visits for treatment to the local VA hospital were, quote, "unexcused absences," and just six months after risking life and limb for his country, his employer dismissed him, saying that he'd exceeded the number of unexcused absences that were allowable.
Another example that was reported to me was of a soldier who suffered a leg injury while serving in Iraq. He required physical therapy. Having broken my own leg last year, I know how important that is. And his employer said that the company leave policy did not allow him to get that type of treatment. And this injured veteran was dismissed three months after returning from the battlefield.
Hopefully, these are isolated incidents, but I think that they do deal with something of a -- perhaps of a loophole or misinterpretation in this legislation, which this subcommittee and committee as a whole have been responsible for enforcing.
And I know also the work of this committee in trying to do more to get health care for our veterans, and despite the significant progress we've made with the last couple of VA appropriation bills, this type of thing can occur with some significance, because as I'm sure is true in your state, in South Dakota, the -- some of these veterans, for something like physical therapy, may have to travel long distances. So it's not just a matter of an hour out of the office. It may be half a day out.
And so I believe there is a problem here that needs attention, and I offer the very narrow legislation that I've submitted and some of you have cosponsored and would ask for the subcommittee's favorable recommendation.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Thank you very much, Mr. Doggett.
Mr. Boozman or any other committee members have questions or comments?
REP. BOOZMAN: I don't have any questions. I appreciate you -- you know, certainly the two instances that you cite are -- you know, we all agree are --
REP. DOGGETT: (Unacceptable ?).
REP. BOOZMAN: -- unacceptable, inexcusable. And you know, we do need to figure out a way to do that. So we thank you for bringing this forward.
REP. DOGGETT: I thank the members of the committee and -- (off mike).
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: (Chuckles.) Thank you, Mr. Doggett. Thank you.
I will now recognize Mr. Wilson. You're recognized for five minutes.
MR. WILSON: Thank you.
Madame Chairwoman and members of the subcommittee, on behalf of the 1.2 members -- million members of the Disabled American Veterans, I'm honored to present testimony addressing various bills before the subcommittee today.
In accord with our congressional charter, the DAV's mission is to enhance -- is to advance the interests and work for the betterment of all wounded, injured and disabled American veterans. We are therefore pleased to support various measures insofar as they fall within that scope.
Of the legislation under consideration today, I will address three in my oral statement.
First is H.R. 297, the Veterans Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Subsistence Allowance Improvement Act, that seeks to increase the monthly subsistence allowance payable to veterans participating in the VA vocational rehabilitation program.
This legislation would, for example, increase the current subsistence allowance for a single veteran going to school full-time from approximately $541 to $1,200 per month.
Further, it directs the VA to provide a monthly subsistence allowance for the first time to those veterans who are not participating in vocational rehabilitation, but rather are using the employment arm of vocational rehabilitation and employment services. This legislation would provide such veterans a subsistence allowance for three months during this period of active job hunting.
While not opposed to the favorable consideration of this legislation, and we commend Mr. Buyer for its introduction, we recommend it be amended to authorize vocational rehabilitation and employment -- Chapter 31 -- participants to receive the higher subsistence allowance offered under the post-9/11 GI Bill in Chapter 33.
For example, the higher subsistence allowance equals approximately $1,570 per month for a single E-5 living in the D.C. metro area, a significant increase in the approximate $541 currently and an increase in the proposed $1,200 to the same veteran in this legislation.
Difference in the subsistence allowance may be significant enough to cause some to actually opt out of vocational rehabilitation, which in the long term may be detrimental to their physical and mental health as well as their ability to retain employment. We believe this is not the intent of Congress, of course.
There is precedent, which can be found under Section 3108(f) of Chapter 30, which governs the Montgomery GI Bill. It allows a veteran to receive vocational rehabilitation assistance, but at the subsistence allowance under the Montgomery GI Bill.
Therefore, we ask for your favorable consideration in amending this legislation to grant the higher subsistence allowance offered under the post-9/11 GI Bill, yet allowing veterans to continue vocational rehabilitation.
The second piece of legislation I would like to address is H.R. 228, which directs the secretary of Veterans Affairs to establish a scholarship program for individuals who, one, pursue a program of study leading to a degree or certificate in either visual impairment orientation or mobility or both; two, provided they agreed to become a full-time VA employee for three years in the first six years after program completion.
While the DAV has no resolution on this issue, we're not opposed to this legislation. The only amendment we would recommend is that the scholarship program's emphasis is on providing such educational opportunities first to service-connected veterans with visual impairment orientation and/or mobility disabling conditions.
The third and last piece of legislation I'll address is H.R. 466, Wounded Veteran Job Security Act, which amends the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination and acts of reprisal by civilian employers against persons who receive treatment for conditions incurred in or aggravated by service in the uniformed services.
Although the DAV has no resolution on this issue, we are not opposed to the favorable consideration of this legislation, and it would protect -- as it would protect veterans from discrimination and reprisal as they seek care for their disabilities.
Madame Chairwoman, this concludes my testimony on behalf of the DAV. We hope you will favorably consider our recommendations. I would be happy to answer any questions members of the subcommittee might have. Thank you.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Thank you, Mr. Wilson. We appreciate your recommendations.
Mr. Walker, you're now recognized for five minutes.
MR. WALKER: Thank you. Madame Chairwoman and members of the subcommittee, thank you for this opportunity to present the American Legion's views on the several pieces of legislation being considered by the subcommittee today. The American Legion commends the subcommittee for holding a hearing to discuss these important and timely issues.
Relative to H.R. 147, the American Legion supports this provision. This fund will provide medical, rehabilitative and employment assistance to homeless veterans and their families. Homeless veteran programs should provide supportive services such as, but not limited to, outreach, health care, case management, daily living, personal financial planning, transportation, vocational counseling, employment and training/education. This designation of funds would provide these needed services for America's most vulnerable veterans.
H.R. 228. The American Legion supports this pilot program. There's a strong need for more medical providers in these medical fields, and this program would provide the necessary funding for veterans who are interested in these career opportunities.
H.R. 297. The American Legion supports this provision. This subsistence increase would allow the veteran to meet his or her needs and maintain their educational pursuits within the VR&E program.
H.R. 466. The American Legion supports this amendment to USERRA to allow veterans to maintain their employment while being treated for service-connected disabilities.
H.R. 929. The American Legion supports this legislation. This program will provide job training in a relevant career field for veterans who have been unemployed for at least 90 of the previous 180 days, are not eligible for educational or training services, or do not have a primary or secondary military occupation specialty that is readily transferable to the civilian workforce.
This program would be the only federal job training program available strictly for veterans and the only federal job training program specifically designed and available for use by state veterans' employment personnel to assist veterans with employment barriers.
H.R. 942. The American Legion supports this provision. The American Legion views small business as the backbone of the American economy. This program would defray the costs and allow training that is required to run a franchise successfully.
H.R. 950. The American Legion believes that paying veterans a lesser benefit when they receive credit via distance learning is a concern. DOD reports that over 70 percent of its enrollees are receiving credit via distance learning, and the VA is reporting a similar shift towards increasing utilization of the distance learning modality.
Accordingly, The American Legion is recommending that the allowances for distance learning be similar to those for residential learning. This policy assures equity for veterans, including such individuals as single parents and veterans with significant medical disabilities.
H.R. 1088. The American Legion recommends that these personnel be trained within a year. We absolutely -- we agree with this legislation.
And H.R. 1089. The American Legion has no position currently on the enforcement through the Office of Special Counsel of the employment and unemployment rights of veterans and members of the armed forces employed by federal executive agencies.
And lastly, H.R. 1171. The American Legion strongly supports the reauthorization of HVRP for fiscal years 2010 to 2014. HVRP is the only nationwide program that focuses on assisting homeless veterans to reintegrate into the workforce.
Again, thank you for the opportunity to submit these opinions of the American Legion on these issues. Willing to answer any questions.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Thank you, Mr. Walker.
Dr. Zampieri, you're now recognized.
MR. ZAMPIERI: Yes. On behalf of the Blinded Veterans Association, I appreciate the opportunity to provide the testimony today to the committee.
We aren't going to give up. We appreciate the fact that actually you all passed H.R. 1240 in the last session. And I appreciated the bipartisan support of the committee in trying to get the scholarship program for the blind rehabilitative instructors and the orientation mobility instructors.
Since then, the bad news is, of course, the friends of mine on the Senate side didn't get a chance to pass the bill in the 110th Congress. But I've spent the last week over there and I -- I'm sure that, if nothing else, they want to get rid of me, so they said, "We'll try this time to get the bill passed."
And I think Senator Brown actually is going to be introducing the companion bill in the near future, and with also bipartisan support over there. So again, we appreciate your bringing this bill up again before your committee and, hopefully, we'll get it passed.
The bad news is that as the VA has tried to expand its outpatient blind rehabilitative programs to more medical centers, since we last testified -- 18 months ago or whenever the hearing was -- the number of vacant positions now has increased.
The good news is the VA is trying to expand its ability to improve access for blind and low-vision veterans. And actually, they've opened up 53 new programs. The bad part of that is, is when you're trying to recruit this -- these individuals, there are only 30 universities in the whole country that offer a master's-level degree in blind instruction and orientation mobility. And there is actually a national shortage of these individuals coming out of these 30 programs, because these programs are very small to begin with.
And so the VA would be able to use this scholarship program, obviously, as a great, you know, recruitment tool to bring these individuals into the system.
The polytrauma centers and the other blind rehabilitative centers especially have felt the problems with trying to be able to recruit these individuals. And as mentioned by other witnesses, these individuals coming back are polytrauma patients. Not only are they visually impaired, but they often have other physical injuries, burns, amputations.
A significant number of them where there are polytrauma patients have PTSD. And the best place for them to be treated is within a multi-disciplinary health care system like the VA operates at its blind centers, and in conjunction with the other specialists that are needed to treat these individuals.
The other pieces of legislation before the committee today -- BVA supports all of those. I did make a little error in testimony under H.R. 942. I meant to have a section there where it talked about returning medics and corpsmen. Actually, it should have been under Congressman Welch and Congressman Boozman's bill, H.R. 929.
It's a great resource of individuals returning with combat life- saving skills. It's not easily transferred into the private sector, although these individuals that are combat medics, and who may be corpsmen, can come back and apply to be emergency medical technicians. In many rural states, those are volunteer positions on fire departments and rescue squads, and they can't get employment, even though they have these amazing life-saving skills.
So if there's a way to include corpsmen and medics into this as a way of helping them in a way as far as getting into the VA system and going back to school and becoming physicians' assistants, it helps meet several things in regards to providing rural health care -- primary-care providers, that physicians' assistants are. So I just wanted to bring that up.
These other things are also important. Congressman Doggett's bill -- I just want to say that we have also supported that, because I know of servicemembers who've had problems where they're actually afraid -- especially National Guard and reservists who come back, who have had traumatic brain injuries -- to tell their employer that, "I had a TBI."
Now here we are, constantly trying to figure out better ways to screen, diagnose and treat these individuals. But I'm hearing that, you know, there's a stigma attached now, and employers get real suspicious of an individual who comes back and says, "Oh, by the way, I had a TBI," or "I have PTSD because of my experience in Iraq." And just so you know, there are cases out there that I'm familiar with. Persons have suddenly been treated differently than in the past.
So any way that you can protect an individual so that they are not discriminated against because of the fact that, you know, they're seeking treatment and care for a war-related injury or illness or mental health problem, will you please support action here on the committee.
And I just want to mention that today I have a blinded OIF servicemember who came with me from Walter Reed. And I'm not sure how you all would do this, but you're the experts. One of the things, too, with Congressman Doggett's bill -- and I know the committee has looked at -- if there's a way to sort of help the parents or the spouse or a family member who's the caretaker. We've heard of cases where individuals are trying to take care of their son or daughter, and they start to get harassed at work because they're taking time off from work in order to get their son or daughter to appointments and stuff. And I know this gets complex, in a lot of different legal ways, but it's just something that I wanted to draw attention to.
And so again, we appreciate the opportunity to be able to testify today, and would be willing to answer any questions.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Thank you, Dr. Zampieri. And thank you for your tenacity in working with our colleagues on the Senate side. We appreciate it.
Let me just start out with a couple of questions for Ms. Beversdorf. First, are you satisfied by the geographic location of the services provided by the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program?
MS. BEVERSDORF: Could you repeat the question?
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Are you satisfied by the geographic locations of the services provided by the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program? My understanding is the Department of Labor funds are limited to a number of grantees in a limited number of states. So I guess, to phrase it differently, are there some areas that are under-served by the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program because of the geographic locations as identified by the Department of Labor?
MS. BEVERSDORF: There are definitely areas that are under- served. And part of the problem, frankly, Madame Chairman, is that there's really a limited amount of money that's available.
One of the things that NCHV feels strongly about is that program now for quite a few years has been authorized at $50 million; and yet, regrettably, each year the Department of Labor has seen fit only to increase incrementally -- perhaps about 2 million (dollars) -- each year. I've been with NCHV about three-and-a-half years. And so the number of grants that have been made available, both urban as well as suburban, is limited.
And I have to tell you that most of the time these grants -- they have far more grants than they're able to, you know, actually fund, because of the limited dollars, so -- it is such a successful program.
And so frankly if there's anything that this subcommittee can particularly do, and it's going to be one of our priorities, is to get the full amount of funding this year. That would be a major part of it. Thank you for asking that.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Thank you.
Mr. Brown, in your testimony, you state that while you're -- the VFW is supportive of the intent of the legislation, I think, referring to H.R. 297, it doesn't address the core issues facing VR&E.
Could you perhaps identify for the subcommittee, either now or follow up in writing, what the VFW deems to be the top, say, three to five issues, sort of core issues facing VR&E today?
MR. BROWN: I would be happy to follow up in writing on that, Madame Chairman.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Okay. Thank you.
Also and you know, this is for anyone else on the panel who would like to comment. Mr. Brown, I think, your testimony indicates that VFW can't support H.R. 950, because it would create inequities among veterans pursuing distance-learning. And I'm wondering if VFW could support the bill -- I think, Mr. Walker, you may have referenced this in your testimony -- if it was changed to the student's residence at enrollment instead of the institution's location.
MR. BROWN: That would certainly make it more favorable to the VFW.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Okay.
REP. BOOZMAN: Mr. Brown, can you elaborate a little bit on Mr. Welch's bill, H.R. 929?
MR. BROWN: Yes, Congressman. Exactly how would you like me to elaborate on it?
REP. BOOZMAN: Well, you all -- do you oppose that?
MR. BROWN: We are not in support of the legislation, Congressman.
REP. BOOZMAN: I guess what I'd like to know is a little bit more where you -- you know, if you see, you know, a situation that can be fixed, or you're just -- you know, do you have, I guess, a recommendation in fixing the bill?
MR. BROWN: Well, one of the biggest things that struck out while looking at the bill, in consideration of the total unemployment right now for veterans, we're looking at about 850,000 people.
Even before the economic decline, it was about half of that. If veterans were to use this benefit to the full amount of $20,000 a year, for the period of one year, at an appropriation of $60 million, that would only affect 3,000 veterans.
So I guess one of our biggest issues, with the legislation, is that we feel that we really need to look at maybe some other avenues, to really try to affect a larger veteran population.
The legislation seems like it is aimed at a certain demographic of veterans. In particular, I think, it cites that anybody that is eligible for educational benefits is not eligible under this section.
Also we think that, you know, that the bill is essentially just paying employers to hire veterans. And another program that also kind of does something like that, but their job is to hire other veterans, is the DVOP waivers through Workforce Investment Act.
They're appropriated at about $160 million. Their job is to hire other veterans. This is a $60-million appropriation that would just pay kind of any employers. And we just feel like there are more effective ways of trying to go after this demographic.
REP. BOOZMAN: Well, that's very reasonable.
Ms. Beversdorf, the -- you mentioned, you know, that the authorization was $50 million and that it was -- how much -- one of the -- one of the arguments has been that there's not enough providers. You know, if you did dole out, you know, more money, some people are arguing that there's not enough providers to actually use the money efficiently. Can you comment on that?
MS. BEVERSDORF: Well, there's -- we -- NCHV actually represents 260 community-based organizations. And there are many out there, who are not members, that are providing services. But I would argue that first of all, we still have -- there are more providers out there that have been applying and have been turned down in terms of, you know, their application and that usually one really has to be -- really submit a very excellent proposal. And so I would argue that there are.
I think it sometimes depends on the -- you know, who's reviewing the proposals, in terms of how many there are out there. And it just seems like such a small price to pay, to at least try to have more money that's available and see rather than, as I said, increasing it in such a small amount. I mean, 50 or 25 -- an additional $25 million seems like a small amount to make available, to increase the number of people who would apply for the program.
REP. BOOZMAN: I agree. Thank you very much.
Thank you, Madame Chair.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Thank you, Mr. Boozman.
I just have two other questions.
Mr. Walker -- well, let me first clarify.
Mr. Brown, is it the VFW's position, as it is the DAV's position, that you're advocating for the subsistence allowance as offered, under the post-9/11 G.I. Bill, be available for VR&E participants; that level?
MR. BROWN: The level of what?
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: The level of funding offered, under the post- 9/11 G.I. Bill.
So I think in your testimony, I think, you estimate that the Chapter 33 basic allowance for housing is more generous than what's currently offered for subsistence.
MR. BROWN: Correct.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: So do you agree that we should make the level of subsistence allowance the same level for VR&E participants under Chapter 33 or, excuse me, no -- Chapter 31, as it is under Chapter 33?
MR. BROWN: Right, at the minimum. I mean we're also talking about disabled veterans as well.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: And Mr. Wilson, that was your testimony for the DAV as well, right?
MR. J. WILSON: Yes, that's correct.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Mr. Walker, has the American Legion taking a position on this?
MR. WALKER: We have not taken one on that.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: You have not, okay.
And then my final question relates to my bill, with regard to the Office of Special Counsel and USERRA complaint issues. Do any of the veterans service organizations represented today, on this panel, have a position as to whether or not OSC should be the lead agency handling USERRA complaint issues?
MR. BROWN: Not at this time.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Not at this time.
MR. J. WILSON: Not at this time.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Okay.
MR. WALKER: Not at this time, no, ma'am.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Okay.
That's all I have. We thank you for your testimony, your commitment to our nation's veterans and your recommendations and your thoughts on the bills that we have under consideration in this hearing today. Thank you very much.
I'd now like to invite our witnesses on the third panel to the witness table. Joining us today is Mr. Patrick Boulay, chief of the USERRA Unit for the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, and Mr. Keith Wilson, director of the Office of Education Service, Veterans Benefits Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs. Thank you both for being here. Thank you for your written testimony, which will be entered in its entirety into our hearing record.
So Mr. Boulay, we'll begin with you. Thank you again for being here at the subcommittee. And we'll recognize you for five minutes.
MR. BOULAY: Thank you, Madame Chairwoman, Mr. Ranking Member, and members of the subcommittee. Good afternoon and thank you for the opportunity to testify today, on important matters of concern to our veterans, their families and our nation as a whole.
My name is Patrick Boulay, and I'm chief of the USERRA Unit at the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. OSC is honored to serve as the federal sector prosecutor of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, the law that protects the civilian employment rights of our veterans.
There are several important bills concerning veterans' benefits and programs that are the subject of today's hearing. As OSC's role is limited to USERRA however, our testimony today focuses on H.R. 1089, the Veterans Employment Rights Realignment Act of 2009, which proposes to expand OSC's role in USERRA, by giving OSC exclusive jurisdiction to not just prosecute but also investigate USERRA complaints involving federal executive agencies.
Our nation's military commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere have resulted in unprecedented deployments of our National Guard and Reserves during this decade.
As a consequence, we have seen and are likely to continue to see increased activity surrounding USERRA, in the months and years ahead, as soldiers continue to transition to and from the civilian workforce. Federal agencies, which employ approximately 25 percent of the Guard and Reserve, will play an important role in this process.
As you may know, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel is an independent, federal, executive and prosecutorial agency whose primary mission is to safeguard the merit system in federal employment, by protecting federal employees and applicants from prohibited personnel practices, such as whistleblower retaliation.
In 1994, OSC's mission was expanded with the enactment of USERRA, which is intended to ensure that those who serve in our nation's military are not disadvantaged in their civilian careers because of military service, are promptly reemployed in their civilian jobs upon their return from duty, and are not discriminated against in employment based on past, present or future military service. This law applies to all employers, federal, state, local and private. Congress intends for the federal government to be a model employer under USERRA.
OSC is privileged to play a critical role in the enforcement of USERRA. Specifically, OSC provides legal representation and files suit on behalf of federal employees and applicants whose USERRA rights have been violated by their federal agency employers. Since USERRA's enactment, OSC has sought to vigorously enforce USERRA to help fulfill Congress's goal that the government be a model employer under the law. We believe that federal agencies must set an example for private, state and local employers to follow.
We owe an immeasurable debt of gratitude to those who serve, and we must make certain that they are restored to their full employment rights and benefits when they come home and that they are not discriminated against in employment.
Under current law, federal employees and applicants who have USERRA complaints must first submit those complaints to the U.S. Department of Labor. The Department of Labor then investigates and attempts to resolve their complaints. If DOL's efforts are unsuccessful in resolving the complaint, the claimant may request that his or her complaint be referred to OSC. Once OSC receives the case, it reviews the investigative file from the Department of Labor and determines whether to represent the claimant in a USERRA appeal before the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.
Thus, USERRA creates a bifurcated process for federal employees and applicants seeking to vindicate their USERRA rights by splitting the investigative and prosecutorial functions between two agencies, the Department of Labor and OSC.
OSC has long enjoyed a cooperative, productive partnership with DOL enforcing USERRA. Nevertheless, in USERRA cases referred from DOL to OSC, OSC must rely on DOL's investigations, which are sometimes incomplete or not fully or properly analyzed under the law. This often requires OSC to conduct additional follow-up investigation to make its determination.
Recognizing the inefficiencies of the bifurcated USERRA complaint process for federal employees, as well as OSC's extensive experience and expertise in investigating and resolving other federal employment claims, Congress established a USERRA demonstration project in 2004, under which OSC directly received roughly half of all USERRA complaints for both investigation and possible prosecution.
Under the demonstration project, OSC resolved the USERRA complaints it received in an efficient and highly effective manner, obtaining full relief for claimants in one -- one in four of all claims filed with our office. OSC achieved this unusually high rate of corrective action through its thorough investigations, expert analysis of the law, ability to educate federal agencies about USERRA, and a credible threat of litigation before the Merit Systems Protection Board.
Claimants whose cases OSC received also benefited from having a single centralized entity handle their claims from beginning to end instead of being transferred within and between the Department of Labor and OSC. The demonstration project ended on December 31st, 2007, without further congressional action. If enacted into law, H.R. 1089 would expand and make permanent the benefits realized under the demonstration project by authorizing OSC to not just investigate, but to prosecute and receive all USERRA complaints involving federal executive agencies.
By consolidating the investigative and prosecutorial functions in one specialized enforcement agency, we believe H.R. 1089 would make the USERRA complaint process more transparent, accountable, efficient and effective for military servicemembers deployed or seeking to be employed by the federal government.
It would also allow the Department of Labor to better focus on providing its best service to those employed by nonfederal employers and to administer other vital veterans' programs. For these reasons we believe H.R. 1089 is a win-win proposition for the men and women who serve in our nation's military, for federal servicemembers who would benefit from OSC's specialized experience and approach, and for non-federal servicemembers who would benefit from greater attention and focus on their claims at the Department of Labor.
Thank you for your attention, and I look forward to your questions.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Thank you.
Mr. Wilson, you're recognized for five minutes.
REP. WILSON: Thank you.
Madame Chair, Ranking Member Boozman, thank you. I'm pleased to be here today to provide you comments and views on pending benefits legislation.
Several bills on the agenda today affect programs and laws administered by the Department of Labor, the Office of Special Counsel, and the Internal Revenue Service. We defer to those lead agencies and expect that they will best speak to the following bills: H.R. 147, H.R. 466, H.R. 1088, and H.R. 1089, and the draft bill to reauthorize homeless veterans' reintegration programs.
I regret we did not have sufficient time to formulate formal views on two pieces of -- two bills -- H.R. 228 and H.R. 297. However, we'd be pleased to provide written views for the record.
H.R. 942, the Veterans Self Employment Act of 2009, would direct VA to conduct a five-year pilot to test the feasibility and advisability of using VA education assistance to pay for training costs associated with the purchase of a franchise enterprise. Currently, there's no provisions under any education benefit program for payment of benefits to help cover the training costs associated with the purchase of a franchise enterprise.
The impact on this legislation on VA with regard to the number of claimants would be minimal. However, there would be more significant administrative impact in that VA would be required to develop regulations for proper administration of the program, as well as conduct adequate oversight to ensure compliance.
VA supports enactment of this act, subject to the identification of offsets for the additional benefit costs. VA estimates that enactment of H.R. 942 would result in benefit costs of $594,000 for fiscal year 2010 and $23.7 million over 10 years.
H.R. 929 is an education training program which would require VA to establish a military occupational specialty transition program for training to provide eligible veterans with skills relevant to the job market. VA supports the initiative's goal of expanding education opportunities, but as currently drafted, this bill would be problematic to implement and execute. Therefore, we cannot endorse it at this time. Under the program, VA would enter into contracts with employers who had received payments for providing programs of apprenticeship or on-the-job training.
Under the MOST program, the secretary would be required to determine whether a veteran's military occupational specialty has limited transferability to the job market and whether the veteran has not acquired a marketable skill since leaving military service.
Because of these unique determinations, we believe MOST would be better implemented as a joint program between the Department of Labor and VA.
The MOST program would allow for payment to employers who provide a program of apprenticeship or training for eligible veterans, and it is expected that the employer would hire the veteran on completion of the training, but there are no guarantees. To reimburse an employer for a portion of the apprenticeship or on-the-job wages, as well as to ensure that veterans are protected with rights as employees, it would seem to be a better program if the employers are required to hire the veterans at the beginning of the training program.
As written, the program puts the risk upon the veteran and VA, with only a hope of future employment for the veteran. This legislation would require significant development of regulations and procedures to administer the benefit.
As the proposed legislation appears to be effective the date of enactment, there would be a considerable delay in VA's ability to pay claims associated with the MOST program.
H.R. 950 is a bill designed to pay college housing allowance to veterans who take education courses over the Internet -- in other words, distance learning via the post-9/11 GI Bill. As currently written, this program poses a risk of unintended increased costs due to the locality determination of the subsidy. Therefore, as currently drafted, we oppose the bill.
Currently, under the bill, individuals who are pursuing a program of education are eligible to receive a monthly housing alliance stipend equal to Department of Defense basic allowance for housing rates for an E-5 with dependents. This bill would extend this benefit to individuals taking courses over the Internet, regardless of their location. This legislation would have an impact on VA business processes and procedures. Housing stipends are based on VAH -- VAH rates where the school is located. First is the individual's residence.
We anticipate some individuals would enroll in a distance learning program at the schools with the highest VAH rate. Presumably, it would be better to base the housing stipend on where individuals live and/or their home of record at the time of enrollment.
VA estimates that enactment of H.R. 950 would result in benefit costs of $20.4 million for fiscal year 2010 and $1.5 billion over 10 years. In view of the cost and because VAH rates based on the locality of the school bear no relationship to the cost of living associated at a locality, VA opposes this bill.
Madame Chair, this concludes my statement. I'd be happy to entertain any questions you or other members of the subcommittee may have.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Thank you, Mr. Wilson.
Mr. Boulay, let me start with you. Is it correct to state the Department of Labor must accept every USERRA case, while OSC can pick and choose among the cases for which it was referred?
MR. BOULAY: I mean, in a sense -- Department of Labor at this time receives all USERRA complaints against all employers. And if they investigate and are unable to resolve the complaint, the claimant, regardless of the merit of the case, can ask that the case be referred to OSC.
So -- and then OSC must then determine whether to prosecute the case, pursue settlement, file a case with the MSPB, et cetera. So in a sense, you know, Department of Labor picks and chooses in the sense that they try to determine merit through their investigations and then only approach an employer if they think there is something to the case in terms of trying to get something for the servicemember.
And I suppose we -- we do, too, in the sense that we're trying to evaluate whether there's enough evidence to go forward.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Okay. Well, let's -- let's touch on the issue of the evidence, because you did -- you were critical in your testimony of the Department of Labor's investigations and analyses.
Can you identify sort of the most common deficiencies that OSC finds with the Department of Labor's investigations?
MR. BOULAY: Well, I think there -- there are a number of things that seem to be common problems, one being that Department of Labor is just trying to get enough information to figure out if there's some merit to the case and if they can maybe settle it. So, you know, oftentimes they might not interview all the witnesses. They might not ask all the questions. They might not get all the documents that would be needed to prove a case in court. So there's some incompleteness.
We've also seen that sometimes they analyze cases, for instance, under the anti-discrimination part of USERRA rather than the reemployment part, or vice versa, which of course affects how they investigate the case and, you know, our ability to evaluate it if it's not analyzed under the right part of the statute. And I think that that could be due to the fact that, you know, Department of Labor's process for USERRA is very decentralized. They have -- they have these offices throughout the country, which, you know, I'm sure benefits our veterans in terms of them being able to go to a local office.
But, you know, in terms of outcomes in USERRA cases, there's a lot of inconsistency in the quality we see, because there's not a lot of central oversight, whereas at OSC, we're, you know, a small agency. We're located here in D.C. We have a few field offices, but everything's done -- you know, everything -- when we have a USERRA case, and under the demonstration project, all the cases come in through the USERRA unit, through me as the chief, and go out. And I review them before their -- the determination is finalized.
So we get more consistency that way.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Okay.
Let me ask just a couple of questions, then, about how the -- in terms of number of cases referred under the current process. How many cases are referred to the -- from the Department of Labor to OSC in an average year?
MR. BOULAY: Well, in the past, that number was generally anywhere from, let's -- 10 to 20 cases, on average.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: On average -- well, how about last year?
MR. BOULAY: Last year -- well, I think -- last year I believe it was in that range. However, we were still kind of dealing with the demonstration project --
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Right.
MR. BOULAY: -- so that tends to depress the numbers. Actually, this year, I think in part because of the new -- of a new law that imposes deadlines, and Department of Labor's improvement in notifying veterans that they can come to OSC, we're actually on pace to get about 40 or 50 referrals this year.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: (Great ?).
MR. BOULAY: So far, in this fiscal year. So we are seeing an uptick, but obviously we would see, you know, I think in the vicinity of 300 to 400 cases, if we were getting -- that's about the number of total federal cases a year, I -- is about 3(00) to 400.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Okay, so let's say you get them.
MR. BOULAY: Yes.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Is the OSC prepared to handle the increased workload?
MR. BOULAY: Yes, we are. And that's because, you know, we had a USERRA unit in operation, a fairly large group, during the demonstration project. You know, our personnel have been spread out a little bit into different departments as the work has decreased, but we can bring them back together.
And, you know, this wasn't even hard when we got the demonstration project, because, you know, this is not a stretch for us. We investigate these. We investigate cases; we enforce USERRA. It wasn't a stretch for us to start investigating USERRA cases as well. They're very similar to the other cases we also investigate, like whistleblower cases.
So it's really not, you know, a big stretch for us to have to do this, and, you know, we think there would be a need for some additional staff and resources, but, you know, we've already kind of projected that, and I don't think it would be that difficult.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: But you would need additional staff resources.
MR. BOULAY: We would need some additional resources, you know, beyond our existing staff, to, you know, handle the larger volume. Under the demonstration project, we were only getting half of the federal cases.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Right, right.
MR. BOULAY: So we'd need, you know, some additional staff.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: But you haven't done any estimates as it relates to, you know, how -- again, if this were to go forward, if this bill were to become law.
MR. BOULAY: Well, we actually have --
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Okay.
MR. BOULAY: -- and we estimate that we would need, I believe, 19 full-time employees. We have a handful right now.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Nineteen additional.
MR. BOULAY: Well, about 16 additional employees, and an increase, I think, in the vicinity of $2-1/2 million in funding to cover that.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Okay.
Final question: Should there be a mandatory referral to OSC from the Department of Labor? Or would making OSC the lead agency be better in your opinion?
MR. BOULAY: Well, I think -- you know, I think, definitely, making OSC the lead agency would be better, because then it wouldn't place the burden on the claimant, for one thing, to ask for a referral.
And you know, if we got involved in the cases sooner, and we -- you know, we were able to do our own investigation, we could approach, you know, an agency, a federal agency sooner on the claimant's behalf, perhaps get settlement. I think it would just be much more efficient. I mean, a mandatory referral kind of takes it out of the hands of the claimant. I mean, they have that right as a matter of law. So I just think, again, that just -- us being able to do these cases from beginning to end, given our experience and our mission, would definitely be a benefit and allow us to really make the federal government the model that it's supposed to be.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Great. Thank you.
REP. BOOZMAN: Thank you, Madame Chair.
I really don't have any questions. We appreciate your all being here. Appreciate your testimony.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Well, Mr. Wilson, we're not going to let you off the hook that easily.
REP. WILSON: (Laughs.) I'd be disappointed otherwise.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: (Laughs.) Confused. I know. That's right. But just a couple quick questions for you.
On H.R. 950, if the bill was amended -- I asked this question to a prior panel -- if the bill were amended to pay the student the housing stipend based on their current residence from their -- from which they were taking the distance learning courses, rather than the location of the institution, would VA support the bill? Would VA be more inclined to support the bill?
REP. WILSON: It would take away one of our core concerns about the bill. I would -- I would preface that, though, with our need to take into account what we have in place right now with implementation of a new GI Bill. Because we do -- we would have to take into account any impact it would have with our functional requirements -- rollout, et cetera.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Okay. Good point.
And then you state that the (MOST ?) program would be better implemented between the Department of Labor and the VA, correct?
REP. WILSON: Correct.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: How -- just elaborate for the subcommittee a bit further on how a joint program would be better.
REP. WILSON: The specific determinations that the secretary would be required to make are largely items that we would not necessarily have the expertise in. And perhaps Department of Labor would have better expertise in that area.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Okay. Okay. And just one final question. You state that H.R. 929 would be challenging to implement. Do you have any thoughts on how implementation might be streamlined? Or --
REP. WILSON: Not at this point. I'd be more than happy to work with the subcommittee or provide more details on that. But at this point I don't.
REP. HERSETH SANDLIN: Okay. We'd appreciate that. All right. Thank you.
Well, thank you both for your testimony, for being here before the subcommittee. And we thank you for your statements this afternoon, as well as the statements of the other witnesses on the prior panel.
And again, we look forward to following up on some of the suggestions that have been made, both by the veterans service organizations, our advocates for homeless veterans, and the agencies that are represented here.
We do hope to mark up a number of these bills this month, and the full committee hopes to take action on them by the end of the month, I believe.
So again, we -- your comments and recommendations are timely. We appreciate them. I know some of our witnesses joined us today on rather short notice. So thank you again for the opportunity that we had to visit with you today.
And the hearing now stands adjourned. (Gavels.)