Advocates urge lawmakers to make major changes to federal veterans' hiring preference

Abbie Bennett
June 24, 2020 - 3:09 pm
Veterans participate in a Washington, D.C. veteran career fair.

Department of Veterans Affairs

Federal veterans' hiring preference needs major change, advocates told members of Congress, since "many veterans receive little or no practical benefit." 

"We need comprehensive change," said Joe Heck, National Commission on Military, National and Public Service chairman. "The preference has become inequitable. Not all veterans are preference eligible and even those eligible are treated differently, so many veterans receive little or no practical benefit." 

Heck testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee Tuesday about the federal preference program provided to veterans. Vets make up about a third of all federal jobs nationwide, with many in the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. 

But because that preference program has placed thousands of veterans in jobs, changes to preference proposed in the past were met with opposition and concern it could limit opportunities for vets. 

Current federal rules limit veterans' preference only to vets with honorable discharges with service-connected disabilities, a record of deployment for foreign military conflicts and Purple Heart recipients, with few exceptions. That means thousands of veterans, including some retirees, don't qualify for federal hiring preference. Veterans also receive greater or lesser preference depending on their status, such as whether or not they are disabled or if they served and are also the only surviving child of a service member who died or is fully disabled. 

Those who do qualify are afforded a significant advantage in the hiring process compared to other candidates, including fellow veterans, Heck said, adding that sometimes the preference may go to far and give veterans an advantage over more qualified candidates. Federal veterans' preference does not guarantee veterans a job and does not apply to internal promotions, transfers or reassignments, according to the Department of Labor. 

Heck and the commission recommended expanding the scope of veterans who might be eligible and also suggested some major limitations to the federal hiring preference to prevent less qualified candidates from getting jobs or abuse of the system.

Veterans afforded preference "can float to the top" of a list of candidates and be hired instead of "better candidates," Heck said, "probably putting them into a job they aren't qualified for." That includes a veteran receiving preference even in cases when they may be "minimally qualified." 

Instead, Heck and the commission recommended that federal veterans' preference should be used as a "tiebreaker" when considering two equally qualified people for the same job.

The commission recommended limiting the amount of time a veteran qualifies for preference to 10 years following their separation from the service. That limitation would help focus the preference on veterans making the transition to civilian life, Heck said. 

Heck also suggested that veterans should be limited to two opportunities to use federal hiring preference to prevent people from taking advantage of the system once they're already in the civilian sector. 

The National Commission on Military, National and Public Service is the same organization that released a report earlier this year recommending women be included in the military draft and other suggestions for enhancing public service. That report also included suggested changes to the veterans' preference program.

The report said that federal veterans' hiring preference dates back to the Civil War and was established "to offset economic loss experienced by service members in comparison to their civilian counterparts, to ease transition from military service back to gainful employment in civilian life and to honor the nation's obligation and debt to veterans." 

As the current preference rules stand, the commission said the program can "undermine the merit system," contribute to a lack of diversity and limit nonveterans' ability to serve in government, even when they're more qualified and should instead be used as a tiebreaker, giving preference to veterans only when they are just as qualified as another candidate. 

The commission also suggested expanding noncompetitive hiring authorities, or alternative hiring processes to make it easier for federal agencies to hire veterans, including education and training opportunities. 

A 2019 survey polling U.S. residents showed that 44 percent of respondents felt veterans' preference should be applied only as a tiebreaker, 12 percent said veterans should receive preference over better-qualified candidates and 18 percent said veterans should not receive any federal hiring preference, according to the commission. 

Read the full report: National Commission on Military, National and Public Service report

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Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

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