A new federal mandate could make it harder for veterans to find jobs.
Under a directive issued by the U.S. Department of Labor last month, local employment representatives no longer will act as personal caseworkers for veterans seeking work. The government says that’s because of compliance issues that have surfaced in the last several years.
But many involved with helping veterans find work have said the directive changes the way things have been for the last 20 plus years.
“I was really surprised that that service was being pulled from veterans when it’s (so close to) Memorial Day,” Vietnam veteran Jim Zaroda said.
Zaroda, 67, of Mountain Top, was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1966. He spent one year on the ground in Thailand supporting combat troops in Vietnam.
After he was honorably discharged, Zaroda had a fulfilling career in sales. He worked for local TV stations selling ads and, later, sold equipment for TV production before retiring nine months ago.
But rather than spending his free time in a Winnebago or on a Florida beach, Zaroda found he missed going to work.
As part of his new job-seeking repertoire, on Tuesday Zaroda visited a Luzerne County CareerLink office, a state-run employment agency that staffs specialists for veterans’ employment issues.
Zaroda was told the veterans’ employment specialist there could no longer help him with his specific case pursuant to the directive. Instead, because he is neither disabled nor suffering significant barriers to employment, Zaroda now must go through the regular CareerLink counselors to find work.
The CareerLink local veterans’ representative did not wish to be quoted or identified due to the matter’s sensitivity.
CareerLinks are part of a network of so-called “American Job Centers.”
They survive on federal dollars, and specialists for veterans seeking work are guaranteed within Title 38 of the U.S. Code. Those specialists are trained to match the right vet with the right job.
Title 38 requires that exclusive services are offered to vets and their eligible spouses, but as the directive states, melding vet specialists into American Job Centers has “resulted in a blurring of roles and responsibilities.”
Those specialists, known as “local veterans’ employment representatives,” now have until July 1 to transition to the duties called for in Title 38, which include broader services like:
• Planning and participating in job fairs.
• Conducting employer outreach.
• Working with employers to hold workshops and set up job-search groups.
• Coordinating with labor unions and business organizations.
• Coordinating with other business-outreach efforts.
Unemployed veterans still should get the priority set forth in Title 38 despite the transition, a U.S. Department of Labor spokesman said
“Our refocusing on the statutory roles of the (veteran specialist) staff has no effect on priority of service for veterans,” the spokesman said in a prepared statement.
With more veterans entering the workforce daily and at a time the Veterans Administration hospital system is under scrutiny for alleged negligence, U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, said he is concerned veterans “have access to every benefit they have earned.”
“It’s my understanding that the Department of Labor will be closely monitoring the progress of the new policies, and I will be following the results with interest,” Barletta said in a written statement.
The latest department statistics show between 1.3 and 1.4 million veterans around the country received job-hunting help through Title 38-funded services for the program year ending last June, the department spokesman said.
The local veterans’ representative positions are funded through a special grant outlined in Title 38.
That grant also pays for “disabled veterans outreach program specialists,” whose job descriptions are more defined under the new directive.
Those folks help veterans who have employment barriers like disabilities, criminal records, low income or no high school diplomas.
Until now, the two employee types have acted almost interchangeably, with disabled veterans counselors and employment representatives often doing the same work, Vaune Shelbourn, director of the National Veterans Training Institute, said.
The institute is a government contractor that trains veterans’ employment service providers.
The directive represents sizable change, Shelbourn said. Job counselors have acted under the old way for the 20 years she’s worked in the program, but the switch may not be as formidable as some critics are making it out to be, she said.
“My personal opinion, I don’t know if this is going to be a bad thing,” Shelbourn said.
The greatest obstacle will be convincing veterans who long have received exclusive help from vets’ counselors that their quality of service will stay the same.
The department has mandated that disabled veterans specialists are the only ones to work as case managers for veterans. In addition, veterans seeking their help must meet minimum required employment barriers — leaving veterans including Zaroda to seek help with civilian-side employment counselors.
In an effort to continue high-quality service for vets who need the most help, what constitutes a significant barrier has been broadened.
“The Secretary of Labor has expanded the definition of significant barriers to employment, allowing more veterans to receive intensive services from disabled veteran outreach program specialists,” the department spokesman said. “All other veterans will continue to receive the services they require, on a priority of service basis, from other (Department of Labor-funded) workforce programs.”
The American Legion feels that these changes will hurt veterans who have grown to depend on the exclusivity from local representatives and the specially trained attention they offered, according to Davy Leghorn, the group’s national employment and education assistant director.
“As an organization, we do believe this is going to be detrimental,” Leghorn said. “The DOL (Department of Labor) somehow thinks that this is not a policy change. They are harking back to what they believe legislation said this is going to be.”
As much as 80 percent of veterans now getting special attention from local representatives, no later than July 1, must be transferred to counselors on the civilian side, Leghorn said.
Federal sequestration chopped 5 percent from the top of many agencies’ operating budgets, and the American Job Centers were not spared, Leghorn said.
Counselors likely will be overwhelmed with the large influx of veterans seeking help, while the funding set aside under Title 38 had relieved the burden on the civilian side, Leghorn said.