Vietnam Veterans of America
Originally enacted in 1974, the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act is a well-intentioned law designed to provide assistance to Vietnam War veterans and to protect them from employment discrimination. It prohibits federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating in employment against several categories of “protected veterans,” and requires that these employers demonstrate affirmative action to recruit, hire, retain, and promote these veterans.
However, according to veterans’ advocates interviewed for this article, VEVRAA’s real-world implementation has fallen well short of its original intentions. Largely unknown among veterans seeking employment and employers themselves (it was a challenge to find anyone who knew enough about it to be interviewed for this article), the legislation appears to have done little, if anything, to assist individual vets. What’s more, it has served to anger and frustrate employers obliged to adhere to its complex and time-consuming regulations—or face a Department of Labor audit and potentially catastrophic fines. DOL did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this article.
“At this point it’s fix it or forget it—and that’s been my message to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee,” said Rick Weidman, VVA’s Executive Director for Policy and Government Affairs. “There are no teeth; they’re now using the thing to essentially [impose] what are tantamount to quotas, and they’re using it as a revenue source to fine employers.”
Despite its name, VEVRAA does not apply solely to Vietnam era veterans (those who served in-country between Feb. 28, 1961, and May 7, 1975, or anywhere else in the world between Aug. 5, 1964, and May 7, 1975). The term “protected veterans” in this context also refers to disabled veterans, recently separated veterans, active-duty wartime or campaign veterans, campaign badge veterans, and Armed Forces Service Medal veterans.
“To me, it’s a great objective,” said Marc Goldschmitt, a Virginia-based Vietnam War service-disabled veteran, business owner, and veterans’ advocate. “But the implementation is basically harmful to small businesses.”
Apparently responding to some of the Act’s perceived shortcomings, DOL’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs published revised VEVRAA rules in 2013, which took effect the following year. These new rules were intended, according to the Department’s website, to “strengthen the affirmative action provisions of the regulations to aid contractors in their efforts to recruit and hire protected veterans and improve job opportunities for protected veterans.”
“The 2014 [revision] was to basically create an income stream for that section of [the Dept. of] Labor,” said Weidman. “The main thing that the revision did was cost employers money and piss ’em off.”
VEVRAA regulations are multifaceted and extremely involved. They include annual hiring benchmarks for federal contractors and subcontractors (that is, employers with federal contracts or subcontracts of $150,000 or more annually), which these employers are required to establish themselves based upon either the percentage of veterans in the civilian labor force, or by using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Veterans’ Employment and Training Service/Employment and Training Administration.
The problem with VEVRAA for veterans seeking employment is that it doesn’t provide them with a legal right that is enforceable under the law, according to Weidman. Unlike the Veterans’ Preference Act, which requires the federal government to favor returning war veterans when hiring new employees, VEVRAA—which is focused on overall numbers of veteran hires and applies to federal contractors, rather than to the federal government itself—doesn’t allow individual veterans who feel they’ve been unfairly overlooked for employment to pursue legal recourse. Instead, they can file a complaint with the OFCCP or with a local Veterans Employment Representative at a state employment services office. But this appears likely only to result in fines for the employer, rather than grant any benefit or compensation to the aggrieved veteran.
“I’m a disabled vet, so my rights under the [Veterans’ Preference] law are absolute,” Weidman explained. “If they hire fifty other veterans for a similar position, but they pass me over even though I’m qualified or highly qualified for a position, then I can sue them. Under VEVRAA, that’s not the case.”
Additionally, VEVRAA requires that contractors “document and update annually several quantitative comparisons for the number of veterans who apply for jobs and the number of veterans they hire,” according to DOL.gov, and that they invite job applicants to self-identify as protected veterans at both the pre-offer and post-offer phases of the application process. The regulations also require contractors, when listing their job openings, to make appropriate state or local job services aware of them, so they can make them available to job seekers. And specific language must be used when incorporating the equal-opportunity clause into a subcontract to alert subcontractors about their VEVRAA responsibilities.
“I don’t know of any tool that’s available, that I have or anybody else has, that would make it easy for me to do that,” Goldschmitt said. “So I’ve got a regulation that there’s no awareness of, and an implementation program that requires me to do things, without any ‘here’s how you do it.’ ”
As with all such laws and regulations requiring nondiscrimination, VEVRAA compliance is overseen and enforced by the OFCCP, and the act requires contractors to allow the agency to review documents and records related to VEVRAA compliance upon request.
“The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs doesn’t do anything for anybody,” Weidman said. “Not only doesn’t it do anything for vets and disabled vets, it doesn’t do anything for minorities or women, either. It is the most useless agency inside the Department of Labor—and, boy, lemme tell you, that’s saying something.”
For a small business owner such as Goldschmitt—whose company Goldschmitt and Associates, LLC, is a federal contractor in IT, project management, and training—VEVRAA’s complex requirements and reporting obligations compel him to divert considerable time, money, and management resources away from running his business without, in his opinion, much tangible benefit to veterans.
“You’ve got a lot of work you have to do just to get where you can execute the program,” said Goldschmitt, a U.S. Navy pilot and flight instructor from 1971-77. “I may have to get a consultant and/or a lawyer, which is not inexpensive.”
“Why are we essentially causing employers to spend money on something that doesn’t mean anything to individual veterans?” asked Weidman. “If you want to have a tax on employers, then do it honestly. And instead of giving all the breaks to big business—because it’s primarily small businesses, small and medium-sized businesses, that end up being fined [under VEVRAA]. And that’s not the business that the Labor Department should be in charge of. If you want to tax ’em, put it in the IRS—don’t make it a hidden tax.”
As a longtime veterans’ advocate who has been involved with VVA’s Economic Opportunity Committee and the National Veteran Small Business Coalition, Goldschmitt is solidly behind the spirit and original intentions of VEVRAA legislation, but takes issue with its regulation.
“This is something that I’d want to do on my own, anyway,” he stressed. “But having all of this stuff that I gotta follow and do—I don’t want to have to put up with that crap.”
Aside from the expense and resources diversion required to adhere to VEVRAA, the issue for Goldschmitt is the ineffectiveness of the act due to veterans—both employers and employees—simply not being made aware of it. He admits that he had never heard of the legislation until he was contacted to contribute to this article, despite having been a veteran business owner since 1998.
“If businesses aren’t aware and businesses aren’t executing, other than facing a potential DOL audit, I’m not sure how it would protect [veterans]. I don’t see any protections, and I’ve been a veteran looking for work,” Goldschmitt said. “I’m not even sure [DOL] knows about this.”
Weidman admits that VVA hasn’t helped spread the word on VEVRAA due to what the organization sees as the Act’s ineffectiveness because in actuality it does not protect or benefit veterans.
“We haven’t tried to make [DOL] publicize it, because it’s only going to get peoples’ hopes up, to have them dashed,” he said. “I’ve never in forty years seen anybody get satisfaction from this statute.”
To Goldschmitt, VEVRAA is, in effect, little more than a feel-good law that is symptomatic of a wider problem of regulators’ lack of real-world business experience. Furthermore, as Weidman points out, VEVRAA’s regulation is the work of non-veteran bureaucrats.
“They don’t understand what’s going on with veterans, particularly disabled vets,” said Weidman, who served as an Army medic in Vietnam in 1969.
In its current form, VEVRAA is viewed by Weidman as unenforceable in terms of protecting veterans, and only a burden to the smaller businesses upon which it has the greatest impact.
“I don’t waste any time on it anymore,” he said. “My time to do advocacy on behalf of veterans is a limited commodity, so I need to concentrate where I’m going to get bang for the buck to help war veterans.”
The question now appears to be whether radical reform of VEVRAA would be sufficient for the act to better serve veterans, or whether its complete abolition would be a more appropriate step toward better protecting vets’ rights in the labor market.
“I would rather see it be a reward-based program than a punishment-based program, to encourage people to do it on their own,” Goldschmitt said. “It could be in terms of tax incentives; it could be in terms of additional credit or preference for awards. And if it’s reward-based I’d also guarantee you’ll find a lot more people who will learn about it. And when you learn about it, and it’s good, you’re going to do it.”
“If we’re going to have it, and I think we should, turn it into a Veterans’ Preference law that mandates that federal contractors with over fifty employees have a Veterans’ Preference system for hiring and retention,” said Weidman. “That would probably work. But what we currently have is a half-hearted pass at a quota system, so it’s really useless.
“It was always broken. There wasn’t any malice in [VEVRAA’s creation]; there just wasn’t forethought about how it was going to work and how to enforce it. So I think that there’s enough evidence now that they ought to fix the darn thing or eliminate it.”
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