Teach Your Company to Fight for Veterans’ Rights

Our hearts warm at footage of our troops coming home to tearful and grateful families, and we are stirred by accounts of bravery and sacrifice. As a nation, we honor those serving in the armed forces. But what about after service?

A smooth transition to civilian life often depends on gainful employment. But employment remains elusive for many veterans. According to the United States Department of Labor (DOL), in 2011 the unemployment rate for veterans was 12.1 percent — about three percentage points higher than the general population. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, nearly two-thirds of unemployed veterans are between 35 and 60 years old.

This trend hasn’t gone unnoticed. The Obama administration has made addressing and improving veterans’ employment issues a priority.

Responding to that call, late last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) convened a meeting to discuss barriers to employment for veterans. What came out of that meeting was a realization that veterans have unique challenges when returning to civilian life. Chief among those challenges are injured veterans who suffer from disabilities.

The federal government has mobilized to address these problems. Through the bipartisan-supported VOW to Hire Heroes Act, the federal government has taken affirmative steps to encourage businesses to hire veterans, including disabled veterans. The Returning Heroes Tax Credit provides businesses that hire veterans with a $5,600 tax credit, and the Wounded Warriors Tax Credit offers employers a $9,600 tax credit for hiring veterans with service-related disabilities. Diversity executives focused on increasing veteran recruitment can link their company’s job postings to the new Veterans Job Bank at National Resource Directory.

In May, the Departments of Labor and Veterans Affairs announced that the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program would retrain 99,000 unemployed veterans for high-demand jobs. In addition to efforts focused on the business sector, federal and state agencies have taken up the cause of protecting veterans in the workforce. These programs have a laudable purpose, but represent challenges for employers. The increased activity and focus on veterans’ demands makes it more important than ever for employers to keep up with these new initiatives and stay current on the law.

For example, earlier this year, the secretary of labor unveiled proposed regulations for military family leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Additionally, like the EEOC, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs has taken an interest in the veteran-specific disabilities under both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act, which has been expanded to cover veterans of subsequent engagements.

Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act requires federal contractors and subcontractors that have more than $10,000 worth of federal contracts and subcontracts to take affirmative action to hire people with disabilities. The DOL also is looking at service-related disabilities under the re-employment provisions of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. These provisions arguably include an accommodation requirement broader than the ADA.

Legal compliance issues are but one part of the picture; the federal government is also seeking to increase awareness of these issues. For example, the DOL’s America’s Heroes at Work has focused on increasing understanding about veterans who have traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from service in Iraq or Afghanistan. But even increased awareness of these issues has risks, and some are concerned about the impact of raising the profile on these issues.

The landscape surrounding veterans’ issues is complicated, and diversity executives are in a difficult but unique position to assist employers navigating these issues. Awareness is key.

Diversity executives must remain vigilant in educating themselves on veterans’ issues, including the myriad laws and initiatives addressing these issues. Diversity executives should also ensure that an employer’s field operations and hiring personnel are sensitized to veterans’ issues, and know how to spot and address potential concerns. Our veterans are an important protected group and belong squarely on all leaders’ minds.

Rebecca P. Bromet is a partner at law firm Seyfarth Shaw. She can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.