WASHINGTON, D.C. - U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI), Chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, held an oversight hearing today on the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, known as USERRA. The Committee questioned panelists on a variety of topics, including jurisdiction over USERRA claims. Chairman Akaka expressed particular concern about the number of USERRA claims being brought by returning servicemembers in connection with their employment in the federal workforce.
"Veterans should not have to fight the government they defended in war just to return to their previous employment," said Akaka.
One witness, Mathew Tully, shared the struggles he faced to return to his old job after serving a tour of duty, describing in detail the issues he faced in regaining his job with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Mr. Tully, a member of the New York National Guard who was accompanied by his wife and one-year-old son, will deploy shortly to the Middle East for his second tour.
Other witnesses at today's hearing included George H. Stalcup, Director, Strategic Issues, U.S. Government Accountability Office; Honorable Charles S. Ciccolella, Assistant Secretary for Veterans' Employment and Training, U.S. Department of Labor; and Honorable Jim Byrne, Deputy Special Counsel, U.S. Office of Special Counsel, accompanied by Patrick Boulay, Chief, USERRA Unit.
Chairman Akaka's opening statement is copied below:
Aloha and welcome to the Committee's oversight hearing on the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). The Committee held a hearing on the employment issues relating to veterans and returning servicemembers on July 31. Today's hearing will focus on two very narrow aspects of this employment program.
As our troops are returning home from battle, 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, United States Code, provides these servicemembers with certain protections. USERRA also sets out certain responsibilities for employers, including to reemploy returning veterans in their previous jobs. This applies to virtually all jobs - including those in the federal sector. I must admit to being particularly upset at 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.
Several years ago, Congress created a demonstration project in the Veterans Benefits Improvement Act of 2004, Public Law 108-454, under which the Office of the Special Counsel (OSC), rather than the Department of Labor's Veterans Employment and Training Service (VETS), was given the authority to receive and investigate certain federal sector USERRA claims. The demonstration project was to have run from February 8, 2005, through September, 30, 2007, but was recently extended until November 16, 2007, by the Continuing Resolution.
Public Law 108-454 required the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to report to the Congress on the operation and results of the demonstration project together with an assessment of the advisability of transferring the responsibility for all federal sector USERRA claims from VETS to OSC. The GAO report was received on July 20, 2007, and I will ask that it be included in its entirety in the proceedings of this hearing.
Unfortunately, it is not clear to me that results of the demonstration project and the GAO report provide sufficient evidence to permit this Committee to decide on the proper jurisdiction of these claims. I believe that a good case can be made for retaining jurisdiction by both VETS and OSC. Thus, this morning, we will be hearing from each of the parties who will have the opportunity to make their case to the Committee on who should have responsibility.
Again, welcome and I look forward to hearing from each of you this morning.