Sandra Niedzwiecki/Defense Department

Two Pay and Benefits Bills for Disabled Vets to Watch

2014 COLA increase awaits president’s signature; House committee approves extra sick leave for disabled vets to go to medical appointments.

Congress has been working on some important legislation recently that will benefit the country’s service-disabled veterans.

The 2014 Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act (S. 2258) now heads to President Obama for his signature, after the House passed the bill on Tuesday. The legislation increases the COLA for vets’ disability benefits starting Dec. 1, 2014. The rate of the increase will be the same as the cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security recipients. The annual COLA legislation, which the Senate approved last week, also affects the disability payments and compensation for vets’ surviving spouses and children.

And on Wednesday afternoon, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee approved bipartisan legislation that would give disabled vets hired as federal employees access to their full year’s sick leave immediately upon starting their jobs.

Full-time federal workers in their first year on the job have no sick leave when they start, and accrue four hours of such leave per pay period. That amounts to a balance of 104 hours at the end of their first year. But disabled vets, who must attend regular medical appointments to take care of their health, and also to continue receiving their veterans’ benefits, quickly burn up their sick leave, according to the Federal Managers Association, which lobbied for the legislation. Many vets also have to travel far to reach the nearest VA facility to receive treatment, which can eat up leave time.

“FMA members have seen first-hand the stress this creates in the work environment, as both managers and employees try to meet congressionally-mandated missions and goals,” said FMA President Patricia Niehaus in a statement. “As these disabled veterans served their country on and off the battlefield, it is only right that the federal government provide this much needed leave.”

The 2014 Wounded Warriors Federal Leave Act would apply to first-year federal employees with a service-connected disability rating of at least 30 percent. During their first year on the job, the veterans would still accumulate their normal sick leave. The employees would only be able to use their extra sick leave for treatments directly related to their service and would not be able to carry over the one-time “wounded warrior leave” after the first 12 months on the job.

Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., sponsored the bill, along with Reps. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C.; Elijah Cummings, D-Md.; Blake Farenthold, R-Texas; and Walter Jones, R-N.C.; and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.

Twenty-one percent of disabled vets applied for disability compensation benefits; of those who applied, 73 percent received a disability rating from VA, according to VA’s 2012 National Survey of Veterans. The federal government is the largest employer of military veterans. “The Wounded Warriors Federal Leave Act will ensure that federal agencies’ and departments' missions and goals will be met while treating our disabled veteran first-year federal employees with the treatment they deserve, and ensuring the federal government is a model employer,” Niehaus said. The American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union also support the legislation.

Veterans and the management of the VA have been front and center these last few months because of the controversy over reports of secret waiting lists for medical appointments and the major reform effort launched by new VA Secretary Bob McDonald. The spotlight on the quality of veterans’ care might be new, but problems with access to care are not.