MSPB: Congress should simplify veterans preference hiring laws

Thursday - 8/28/2014, 4:59pm EDT

John Palguta, vice president for policy, Partnership for Public Service

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Veterans preference, the practice of giving preference to former members of the military in the civil service hiring process, has been around almost as long as there's been a U.S. government.

A new report from the Merit Systems Protection Board says that it's time for Congress to simplify the overly complex veterans preference laws to make sure they're doing what Congress put them in place to do.

John Palguta, vice president for policy, Partnership for Public Service

"Congress in setting laws has been known on occasion to make things a little complex," John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, told Federal Drive's Tom Temin. "And they have, not just veterans preferences laws, they have other laws that they put into place that say, 'We have a merit-based system.' So, if you have nothing but veterans that applied for a particular job, your obligation is still to hire the best qualified veteran, not the veteran who needs the job the most, but the veteran who's best qualified for that job."

The hiring process has changed substantially over the years. In some cases, veterans preference extends beyond the individual veteran to members of his or her family.

"The mother of a veteran could be entitled to preference, the father not," Palguta said. "Apparently, an unmarried spouse of a veteran would not be entitled if they're not officially the wife. So, the 'Who's entitled?' question can get a little complicated. But, I think it's also very much how it works and for whom. The one thing to keep in mind is that at the end of the day, what this policy's about is making sure that veterans who have served the country if they're well-qualified for a federal job that they have some special consideration. I will suggest that that's working."

Veterans accounted for 45 percent of all new hires into full-time, permanent jobs in the federal government during Fiscal Year 2013.

"Veterans make up about 8 percent of the larger workforce in the country, so clearly veterans preference is resulting in veterans getting jobs at a rate much higher than their representation in the overall workforce and so one can suggest that that's what Congress intended," Palguta said. "The policy's working."

Eliminating perceived favoritism in veterans hiring

The MSPB report also found that agencies need to address how veterans preference is implemented in offices to eliminate any perceived favoritism in the hiring process.

"Federal employees perceived inappropriate favoritism towards veterans more frequently than they perceived denials of veterans' preference rights, with 6.5 percent of respondents reporting they observed favoritism towards veterans compared to 4.5 percent reporting they observed a denial of veterans' preference rights," the report said. "Both sets of perceptions are problematic as such conduct is not in keeping with the merit system principles (MSPs) and the responsibility of agencies to avoid prohibited personnel practices (PPPs). Additionally, the survey data showed that employees are less likely to be engaged and more likely to want to leave their agencies if they report having observed either of these two types of conduct."

At the Department of Defense, for example, 8 percent of DoD respondents said they had seen examples of this behavior.

"Additionally, while only 3 percent of DoD supervisors and 2 percent of managers reported perceiving violations of preference rights, 7 percent of supervisors and 4 percent of managers reported perceptions of inappropriate favoritism towards veterans," the report said.

In two other MSPB surveys, some members of the DoD commented that they "had observed manipulations of the hiring process to favor individuals who were retiring from military service."

Examples of these alleged manipulations included tailoring job descriptions to favor those retiring from military service, military or former service members hiring former colleagues without taking into account an applicant's qualifications for the job and keeping a position vacant until a military retiree applies for it.

"Additionally, DoD's own hiring data indicates that large numbers of retirees are being hired with little or no break in service between its military and civilian service, supporting perceptions that the hiring process was manipulated to ensure employment of those retirees," the report said. "It is important that DoD address these perceptions and any underlying causes."

As the overseer of the laws that affect veteran hiring at agencies, Congress ultimately has the power to respond to the challenges presented in the report.

However, MSPB said agencies can take the following steps:

  1. Agency officials must act within the laws and regulations.

  2. Agencies must educate the workforce about the rules concerning veterans.

  3. Agencies must provide a greater degree of transparency about how it is implementing the laws and regulations.

Palguta admitted that the issue of veterans preference is complex, but it's important to make it less so in order to make the hiring processes fairer for everyone.

"There's not an easy solution and ultimately Congress will have to decide what do they actually want to have provided to veterans," Palguta said. "So, I think we're at the best place that we can be right now, which is we've got some very careful analysis being provided, some information. And I think we need to have a larger dialogue around how do we want this this thing to work. We want to provide preferential consideration to veterans. Are we doing it in the best way possible? If not, what changes should be made?"

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