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Washington, D.C. -- U.S. Office of Personnel Management Deputy Director Dan G. Blair, representing Director Kay Coles James before Congress, today advocated Administration support for veterans, giving lawmakers a review of the re-employment rights of federal employees upon their return from active duty. He also offered the agency's full support if legislation passes that would extend the period of health benefits coverage for federal employees called to active military duty.
Testifying before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Blair articulated a series of federal job protections for returning servicemen and servicewomen under the Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA.) He said Director Kay Coles James takes OPM's obligation under USERRA to re-employ veterans "very seriously."
"These veterans left their employment and placed their careers on hold to go fight in far-off lands," said Blair. He added that they "deserve more than our thanks" and that when they are discharged from duty "they deserve to know their right to return to public sector employment is protected."
The job protections range from placing the individual into the position vacated at the time of call-up for active duty, or into a position the employee would have attained had there been no call-up, as well as guaranteeing time-based promotions. Blair said he is not aware, at this time, of any case in which a returning reservist from the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan has not been restored to federal employment.
The federal government is the single, largest employer of veterans, with roughly 450,000 former servicemen and servicewomen -- or 25 percent of its total work force -- on the payroll. It employs about 120,000 reservists and National Guard members.
OPM conducts agency audits to ensure veterans are treated fairly in Veterans' Preference, promotion and restoration rights.
Blair also spoke to a proposal to amend USERRA. If amended, federal employees called to active duty would be eligible for two years of insurance coverage under the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) Program. Currently, active-duty reservists are eligible for 18 months of coverage.
Blair said James would "strongly encourage" agency heads to authorize payment of the full share (government and employee) of the FEHB premium for employees who remain in active duty.
"OPM will continue to support our called-up employees in every way possible," said Blair, "If the extension of FEHB coverage to 24 months becomes law, we will again strongly encourage agencies to pay both shares of the health benefits premium for the entire 24-month period."
Blair noted James' central role in convincing the vast majority of agencies to pay full cost of health premiums for federal employees who were called to active reserve duty following the September 11 terrorist attacks and for other military operations. The 4 percent of agencies not paying the full premium cost are small, independent departments or boards that do not have reservists or National Guard members on the payroll.
"Director James is committed to finding ways to provide health benefits for our called-up employee reservists who bravely commit themselves to defending our country," said Blair.
Currently, more than 15,000 federal employees are serving on active duty, and Blair estimated the additional cost of the USERRA amendment to agencies would be $9.6 million.
Blair's testimony illustrated the human resource agency's strong and ongoing support for servicemen and servicewoman. He referred to OPM's veteran-friendly, job-search web site (www.usajobs.gov) and a number of OPM initiatives, including the Veteran Invitational Program (VIP), designed to help veterans transition to civilian life. The VIP teams OPM with Transition Assistance Program offices on military bases to provide veterans with timely and useful information on Veterans' Preference rights and federal job opportunities.
Blair also noted various veterans' outreach efforts orchestrated by James, including a seminar for soldiers and human resource specialists at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C, and he quoted James' comments to the Veteran Employment Symposium on the contributions veterans make to federal operations:
"Today's veteran brings the same level of dedication to the job as previous generations of veterans, but in addition, they bring many of the high-tech skills needed in the current federal work force. The federal government has a responsibility to help these
men and women as they transition back to civilian life. As members of the best-trained, volunteer military in the world, veterans have demonstrated an appreciation and competence for excellence and teamwork, and I cannot think of a better source of talent for the federal government than those who have completed their service in uniform."
Our mission is to Recruit, Retain and Honor a World-Class Workforce to Serve the American People. OPM supports U.S. agencies with personnel services and policy leadership including staffing tools, guidance on labor-management relations and programs to improve work force performance.