OSC initiative zeroes in on worst vet discriminator - the government

Tuesday - 4/3/2012, 5:06pm EDT

Patrick Boulay, chief of USERRA unit, Office of Special Counsel

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By Gillian Brockell
Federal News Radio

With an administration so focused on getting post-9/11 veterans back to work, it may come as a surprise that the federal government is one of the biggest offenders in discriminating against veterans in its employment practices.

In fact, the Office of Personnel Management recently felt the need to remind agencies that the White House has "zero tolerance" for violations of the the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), the law that protects returning troops from being penalized for military service.

Patrick Boulay, chief of the USERRA unit at the Office of Special Counsel, told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp that many federal managers are unaware just how far the law extends.

"If a service member returns to their federal job, you can't simply give them any position that might be available, or just even give them their prior job back at the same level of pay and seniority. You have to treat them as if they never left and make efforts to train them and catch them up to their peers, so they are not disadvantaged by their service," he said.

Boulay is part of a pilot program to streamline the complaint process for vets working in the public sector.

The Department of Labor typically receives about 1,500 complaints per year from veterans, 20 percent of which come from those who work for the federal government. If they are unable to resolve the complaint, the department refers public-sector cases to the OSC. (Private-sector cases are sent to the Department of Justice.) Under the new program, half of the public-sector cases will be handled from beginning to end by the OSC. Boulay hopes this will make the complaint process easier for veterans.

The biggest offenders in the federal government? The Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Homeland Security and the Postal Service.

"In the case of the VA and the Postal Service, they're very decentralized throughout the country, so you don't know if the information is getting down to the local level," he said.

The pilot project started in August 2011 and will run through 2014. But even if it proves successful, part of the problem will still be unresolved: the fact that USERRA carries no weight to penalize offenders beyond compensating veterans.

"The 'penalty' is really to make the employee whole. So you have to reinstate them, provide back pay, give them their benefits back, maybe provide training, make promotions retroactive. There is no disciplinary action, there's just what we like to call 'corrective' action," he said.

Federal managers interested in learning more about USERRA can go to the websites for the OSC, OPM and Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve.