Congressional Record Statement of Senator Daniel K. Akaka
Mr. President, I am pleased to join with my good friend and distinguished colleague from Massachusetts, Senator Kennedy, in introducing S. 2471, the proposed USERRA Enforcement Improvement Act of 2007. This measure is intended to make substantial improvements in the manner in which claims made under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994--USERRA--are processed and to help ensure that individuals' complaints are addressed in a prompt and efficient manner.
Our troops are returning home from battle, and many of them seek to return to the jobs that they held prior to their military service, particularly those serving in Guard and Reserve units. USERRA, which is set forth in chapter 43 of title 38, U.S. Code, provides these servicemembers with certain protections. USERRA also sets out certain responsibilities for employers, including to reemploy returning veterans in their previous jobs.
As Chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, I held two hearings earlier this year on issues relating to veterans' employment, including one focusing exclusively on the pilot project for processing USERRA claims in the Federal sector and the jurisdictional questions involving the Department of Labor and the Office of Special Counsel. I must admit to being particularly upset with the volume of USERRA claims related to Federal service. It is simply wrong that individuals who were sent to war by their Government should, upon their return, be put in the position of having to do battle with that same Government in order to regain their jobs and benefits.
Out of those hearings, and an oversight hearing held by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pension Committee, chaired by Senator Kennedy, we have learned a great deal about the manner in which USERRA claims are investigated, resolved, or referred to other appropriate entities for enforcement actions. By and large, the process is seamless and frequently involves employer education in terms of helping them understand their obligations under the law. Still too often, many claims are quite complicated and involve what are sometimes called "escalator claims," where an individual is seeking to be re-instated in a position with quite complicated benefits, seniority, health care and fiduciary issues. I believe that anytime an individual is denied their USERRA rights is one time too many. However, I understand that the confusion and misunderstanding that can exist for the employer--particularly a small employer or one who may only have one employee who is a member of the Guard or reserve--can be frustrating.
The legislation we are introducing today seeks to establish reasonable time frames for the USERRA process. When veterans turn to the government to protect their employment rights, they deserve solutions, not delays. It is my hope that this legislation will assist the federal government in protecting the employment rights of veterans.
Our legislation would, in brief, require those filing complaints to be notified within 5 days of the establishment of a claim, require that complaints be investigated and a decision made with respect to the need for further referral within 90 days, and require prompt referral to other agencies. The Government Accountability Office would be required to submit quarterly reports on the processing of claims. Finally, data collected by the Employers' Support of the Guard and Reserve, a voluntary organization within the Department of Defense, would be required to be included in the Secretary of Labor's annual report on USERRA. With respect to this ESRG reporting requirement, it should be noted that this provision has already passed both bodies in the context of the pending conference agreement on the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2008, and it is included here in the event that legislation is not enacted.
I stress that our goal is to improve the current process. We want in no way to place strictures on the program that might result in less than satisfactory consideration and pursuit of claims. I intend to pursue the concerns of all of those involved in these claims--the Departments of Labor, Defense, and Justice, the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of the Special Counsel--through the legislative process in the next session. Should the need for refinements in the measure as it is introduced today become apparent, they will be carefully considered. I know that the Senator from Massachusetts will join me in that endeavor.
December 13, 2007