No One Really Understands How Vets’ Preference Works in Federal Hiring

Michael Michaud, assistant secretary of Labor’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service, and a former Democratic congressman from Maine, said the statutes governing veterans preference should be consolidated to make things simpler. Michael Michaud, assistant secretary of Labor’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service, and a former Democratic congressman from Maine, said the statutes governing veterans preference should be consolidated to make things simpler. Robert F. Bukaty/AP file photo

Many veterans still do not understand how vets’ preference works in federal hiring – and it’s a factor in complaints filed over application of the benefit designed to help former service members find jobs and increase diversity in government.

“There is a myth [among veterans] that vets’ preference is a guarantee for any job that you apply for in the federal government,” said Aleks Morosky, deputy director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ national legislative service, during a Wednesday House Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee hearing. “People are upset that they didn’t get hired, but they also don’t really understand the system.” The myth persists despite the Labor Department’s effort to educate service members leaving the military about vets’ preference during the transition assistance program.

And veterans aren’t the only ones who don’t understand the complicated patchwork of laws and hiring authorities governing the practice, which has been around in some form since the 19th century. It continues to confuse many hiring managers and human resources specialists, which can lead to misapplication. Those errors persist despite the Office of Personnel Management’s extensive training materials and agencies’ own internal guidance on how to correctly apply vets’ preference.

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The statutes governing vets’ preference should be consolidated so it’s easier for people on both sides of the federal hiring process – agency staff and the veteran – to understand the process, according to Michael Michaud, assistant secretary of Labor’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service, and a former Democratic congressman from Maine. Michaud on Wednesday said that of the 590 cases related to complaints over vets’ preference that his office closed in fiscal 2015, just 5.4 percent, or 32 cases, were found to have merit. So, that means there is a lot of confusion on both sides when it comes to vets’ preference.

“Just because a case was filed does not mean the hiring manager violated the law,” Michaud told his former colleagues, some of whom wanted specifics on who was at fault in these interactions, and whether it was intentional or not. Michaud said he thinks the complexity of understanding how vets’ preference works “is driving the unmeritorious cases.”

There are several ways veterans can be hired into the federal government. The "rule of three" in competitive service hiring required that eligible vets receive an extra 5 to 10 points. But since 2010, agencies have increasingly used the “category rating” system (the "rule of three" is still on the books, however) which splits candidates into different "qualified" categories, resulting in a list of the most qualified applicants that HR specialists send to hiring managers. So, if a veteran and a non-veteran are equally qualified for the job, the veteran will prevail because of vets’ preference. But not all applicants have the necessary basic qualifications for a job, and sometimes you might have two qualified vets competing against one another for a job that only one of them will get.

To make things even more confusing, here's what the Merit Systems Protection Board had to say about the difference between vets' preference under rule of three and vets' preference under category rating:

"It is possible for a veteran who would have been referred under the rule of three to not be referred under category rating, said an August 2014 MSPB report on veterans’ preference laws. "Under category rating, a veteran with preference points but no disability who just misses the cut-off line will not be referred, while a non-veteran who scores just above the cut-off line will be referred and can be selected, if not blocked by a veteran."

There’s also the Veterans’ Recruitment Appointment, which allows agencies to hire eligible vets for certain jobs without competition. That falls under the umbrella of “veterans’ preference” but is actually separate from the veterans’ preference scoring system used in competitive hiring.

The Pathways program includes three tracks: current students, recent graduates and Presidential Management Fellows. Participants are classified under Schedule D within the excepted service, and each Pathways program honors veterans’ preference. Disabled vets also can be hired under Schedule A, the authority used to hire people with disabilities.

“There are so many factors about the person applying, the position for which he or she is applying, the authorities being used, and the agency in which the positions exist, that the system is beyond unwieldy,” the 2014 MSPB report said. That study surveyed federal employees, finding that 4.5 percent of workers said an official in their agency knowingly violated veterans’ preference laws, and 6.5 percent “inappropriately favored a veteran.” Those were perceptions, not actual findings of misconduct.

“If Congress chooses to examine hiring laws in the future,” MSPB wrote in that report, “we recommend that it consider the benefits of creating a simpler system that would be easier to manage, apply, and explain to those who will be affected by the decisions made under that system.” 

The federal government overall has increased the number of veterans it has hired from 25.8 percent of the total workforce in fiscal 2009 to 30.8 percent in fiscal 2015. President Obama in 2009 issued an executive order directing agencies to do a better job recruiting and retaining veterans as part of his multi-pronged effort to make the federal government a model employer. OPM has provided training to hiring managers and HR staff on vets’ preference through its HR University, and the site fedshirevets.gov tries to help vets and federal managers navigate the government’s hiring process, among other federal efforts to educate people on the topic.

“Not only is hiring veterans the right thing to do, it makes good business sense,” said Mark Reinhold, OPM’s associate director for employee services.

But the frustration over how vets’ preference is applied, and speculation over whether it sometimes results in poor hires or favoritism remain problems. Something more nefarious also could be afoot, though proving it could be very difficult. “I have heard the anecdotal comment that they keep them there to say they hired them, and then let them go during the probationary period,” Michaud said in response to a lawmaker’s question over whether some agencies were hiring veterans simply to satisfy vets’ preference and administration hiring goals – and then firing them before the end of the probationary period for new federal employees. 

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