Personnel chief says officials avoid veterans hiring rules

By David McGlinchey

Some officials actively circumvent laws that protect federal employment rights for veterans and reservists and others view the regulations as "an annoyance," according to Office of Personnel Management Director Kay Coles James.

She singled out officials who attended a May meeting of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. That meeting was arranged, James said, in part to show personnel officials the sacrifices that reservists make and to drive home the point that veterans and reservists deserve special consideration for federal jobs.

She declined to identify specific individuals who violate laws governing veterans' hiring or employment. Her speech, however, pointed the finger at a limited pool of possible transgressors. The Chief Human Capital Officers Council meeting was attended by fewer than 75 people, many of them union representatives, according to OPM officials.

"It is not that pervasive, but it certainly does exist," James said. "I would be less than candid if I told you it doesn't exist."

James' comments came at an OPM event designed to focus attention on the 1994 Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act and the veterans' preference mandates that have been established by Congress.

She told reporters after the event that she hears anecdotal evidence of program managers who encounter veterans' employment guidelines and ask, "how can I get around this?"

During her speech, James described the aversion to employment rights for veterans and reservists as the federal government's "dirty little secret."

The accusations are accurate and much needed, according to an official at Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States.

"Their jobs do need to be protected, and we do need to really bear down and re-educate or better educate employers," said Jerry Newberry, a VFW spokesman. "Many instances of violations of the law, disregard for the law ... many of the complaints come from people who are employed by various government entities."

Bob Hollingsworth, executive director of the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, said that OPM has been an historically strong ally in upholding the employment rights of returning reservists. He noted that the number of reservists who have complained that their jobs are no longer available to them when they return from active duty is significantly lower than it was during the first Gulf War, in 1991.

At the OPM event Friday, James signed a "statement of support" reiterating her agency's intent to uphold laws that protect veterans' and reservists' employment.