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Meeting of November 16, 2011

Written Testimony of Heather Ansley
Director of Veterans Policy,
VetsFirst, and Co-Chair of the
Consortium of Citizens with Disabilities Veterans Task Force

Chair Berrien, Commissioners Ishimaru, Barker, Feldblum, and Lipnic thank you for the opportunity to share information about the barriers to employment experienced by veterans who have disabilities related to their service. I am Heather Ansley, Director of Veterans Policy for VetsFirst, a program of United Spinal Association. Today, I am here in my capacity as a Co-Chair of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD) Veterans Task Force.

CCD is a coalition of over 100 national consumer, service provider, and professional organizations which advocates on behalf of people with disabilities and chronic conditions and their families. The CCD Veterans Task Force works to bring the disability and veterans communities together to address issues that affect disabled veterans as people with disabilities. Veterans Task Force members include veterans service organizations and broad based disability organizations, including organizations that represent consumers and service providers.

Since its creation, the CCD Veterans Task Force has sought to connect veterans and military service organizations with the disability community to allow for cross collaboration and the application of lessons learned to new populations of people with disabilities. Because of the intersection of the disability and veterans communities that occurs when a veteran acquires a significant disability, the CCD Veterans Task Force is uniquely suited to bring a holistic perspective to issues impacting disabled veterans.

Background

After a decade of war, a significant number of servicemembers have sustained life-altering injuries. The signature injuries of our wounded warriors are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). A 2008 RAND study determined that approximately 18.5 percent of returning servicemembers have PTSD or depression and 19.5 percent have sustained a TBI.1 The actual number of servicemembers who have experienced these injuries remains unknown.

For veterans who have sustained significant injuries, attaining meaningful employment represents one of the best avenues for successfully reintegrating into their communities. For many veterans with disabilities, acquiring a severe, service-related injury not only means the loss of function from that impairment but also the loss of his or her identity as a member of the uniformed services. The military has a distinct culture—with clear roles, lines of communication and accountability and a strong ethos of service and responsibility toward their brothers and sisters in arms—that, for many veterans, provided a structure within which they felt comfortable functioning. Coming back to a civilian world that does not always appreciate many of those values can be disorienting even for veterans returning without disabilities. Without the opportunity to continue serving an employer as a valued and contributing employee, many veterans with disabilities can become disconnected from the very society they pledged to preserve and protect. However, veterans with disabilities, like other people with disabilities, are not well represented in the workforce.

The most recent statistics available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) addressing the cross section of veterans with service-connected disabilities illustrate the connection between disability and veteran status on employment.2 In July 2010, approximately 13 percent of veterans reported having a service-connected disability. Of those veterans, 729,000 reported having a service-connected disability rating of 60 percent or greater. Workforce participation for these veterans was 27.9 percent compared to 53.2 percent for veterans with no disability.

Among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly 25 percent reported having a disability related to their service. Of those veterans, 114,000 reported having a disability rated at 60 percent or greater. The workforce participation rate was 63.7 percent compared to 86.2 percent for veterans without a service-connected disability. Thus, 41,000 veterans of the current conflicts reporting a service-connected disability rated at 60 percent or higher are not even in the labor force.

The barriers to employment for veterans with disabilities differ somewhat from the barriers that prevent other people with disabilities from gaining employment. For instance, veterans with service-connected benefits retain Department of Veteran Affairs’ (VA) disability compensation and health care benefits regardless of their employment status. Many other people with disabilities must choose between access to these types of benefits and employment. Unfortunately, delays in processing claims for VA disability compensation and receiving appropriate health care ensure that veterans are not entirely insulated from resource barriers that may hinder their efforts to return to employment. However, because VA disability compensation and related health care benefits are not reduced due to employment, veterans with disabilities should be in a better position to consider employment than many non-veterans with disabilities.

Aside from resource barriers, other barriers remain that impact all people with disabilities, including veterans, in gaining and maintaining meaningful employment. These barriers are beliefs about the abilities of and accommodations needed by people with disabilities. Although veterans with disabilities have historically been viewed as “more deserving” of assistance than other people with disabilities, these veterans are not immune to the myths that surround the employment of people with disabilities. For example, a recent survey from the Society for Human Resource Management found that “just 39 percent of HR professionals surveyed agree that it is easy for employers to find resources to help them accommodate veterans with disabilities.”3 Thus, veterans with disabilities, like other people with disabilities, face barriers to employment that include misinformation about disability and misperceptions about required accommodations.

In general, many veterans seeking to return to the workforce face barriers to employment, including difficulty translating military skills to the needs of civilian employers and the lack of recognition of the leadership and training opportunities veterans have experienced due to their service. BLS recently released new statistics regarding veterans’ employment.4 The unemployment rate of veterans generally, 18 years and over, was 7.7 percent for October 2011. Drilling down further, veterans of the Gulf War era II (September 2001-present), have an unemployment rate of 12.1 percent for October 2011 compared to 10.6 for October 2010. Even more disturbing, a recent roundtable convened by the Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee revealed that the unemployment rate for veterans with disabilities is an appalling 49 percent.5

Veterans with disabilities often remain a distinct segment of the disability community, which challenges disability rights advocates’ traditional avenues of outreach and communication to disabled people. Specifically, disabled veterans typically identify more strongly with other veterans than with the larger disability community.6 Disabled veterans share the experience of military service and often find a greater sense of community with other disabled veterans than with the broader disability community. Veterans who have disabilities related to their service will likely not be familiar with the disability community or programs generally available to people with disabilities, as they are more likely to rely on VA for services.

Statutory Framework

There are a number of federal statutes that seek to encourage employment of veterans, and in particular, veterans with disabilities. Veteran status gives veterans preference in federal employment and the preference is increased for veterans with disabilities. Eligible veterans are able to participate in VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) program to receive the skills and assistance needed to help them return to the workforce. Some veterans are also able to benefit from employment opportunities with federal contractors through the Vietnam Era Veterans Readjustment Assistance Act (VEVRAA). Finally, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) provides protections against employment discrimination due to military status and requires employers to provide reasonable efforts to accommodate disabled veterans returning to their workplaces following military service.

For the broader disability community, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) serves as the primary statutory source of protection against discrimination due to disability in employment, purchasing goods and services, and in receiving state and local government programs and services. Disabled veterans may be less familiar with the protections offered by the ADA than they are with veteran specific laws and programs. For many veterans, it takes an encounter with the broader disability rights movement to make them understand their connection to the disability community.

The CCD Veterans Task Force appreciates the efforts of the Commission to reach out to veterans with service-connected disabilities about protections available to them under the ADA. Specifically, we would like to single out the development of the documents “Veterans with Service-Connected Disabilities in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)” and “Veterans with Service-Connected Disabilities and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): A Guide For Employers.” EEOC should seek to collaborate with the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Labor’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service, and VA to ensure that this information is provided to participants in the Transition Assistance Program and the Disabled Transition Assistance Program.

Outreach to disabled veterans is critical to ensuring that veterans are aware of the employment protections of the ADA. The protections available to veterans and people with disabilities generally should work together to remove any barriers to employment for disabled veterans. The ADA is an important tool, along with USERRA and VEVRAA, in protecting veterans from employment discrimination due to their service.

Veterans who do not have disabilities related to their service may also be subject to discrimination by employers who assume, for instance, that all combat veterans have PTSD. While the increased attention to PTSD among war veterans has helped to raise public awareness with the goal of removing the stigma associated with mental health conditions, the heightened awareness has unfortunately also fostered an environment in which many people assume that most, or all veterans with combat experience have PTSD.

The USC Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families reported in a recent policy brief about barriers to employment for veterans that increased attention on mental health conditions among veterans had led to employers’ hesitancy to hire veterans.7 Unfortunately, the stereotypical view of people who have mental health conditions remains rooted in suspicion and fear. Consequently, these stereotypes often lead to widespread discrimination against people with conditions like PTSD.

For veterans who face discrimination due to the perception of having PTSD or other disabilities due to their military service, the ADA’s “regarded as” prong may offer a legal remedy. Specifically, the ADA prohibits discrimination against a person because he or she is regarded as having an impairment. The protections provided by the ADA for individuals who are discriminated against due to a perceived disability are critical for veterans who encounter these barriers to employment, yet we are not seeing the ADA invoked in cases of discrimination based on the perception of PTSD in veterans. We need to find ways to educate veterans and employers about the potential application of the “regarded as” prong of the ADA’s disability definition, and we need to ensure that lawyers who specialize in serving veterans are also aware of this provision.

CCD Members’ Experiences Serving Veterans with Disabilities in the Employment Context

Despite the protections for veterans and people with disabilities that are available through federal law, organizations that work to help veterans gain meaningful employment report that veterans continue to encounter barriers to employment due to disability. For veterans with significant disabilities, entering the workforce can be very difficult. Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), a member of the CCD Veterans Task Force, has been one of the champions for the ADA since its passage in 1990. In 2007, PVA developed a vocational rehabilitation program to address the challenges of veterans with significant disabilities entering the workforce.

This program known as Operation PAVE has six locations and is staffed by Certified Rehabilitation Counselors charged with assisting veterans after significant injuries to enter the job market. Many PVA members have long criticized the fact that they received little to no information about the possibility of returning to work as they went through medical rehabilitation. For many of these veterans, it was months or even years after they left the VA medical center's spinal cord injury unit before they heard about VR&E. The co-location of PVA counselors within VA medical facilities allows the counselors to begin the conversation about employment with injured veterans at the start of their medical rehabilitation, with the goal of raising individual veterans’ expectations about the possibility of returning to employment.

It may take months or even years before a veteran recovering from catastrophic injury is ready to begin a career. Part of a vocational rehabilitation (VR) counselor’s job is to navigate the hiring process with hundreds of employer partners. Veterans come to the job market with a wealth of skills that civilian employers may not be familiar with. Veterans also present with some unique wounds of war such as PTSD, TBI, multiple amputations, severe burns, spinal cord injury, and combinations of disability. PVA VR counselors work to educate employers about the skills veterans bring to the table and provide workplace assessments to review any challenges in the work environment.

PVA’s VR counselors find that preparing veterans for the interview process and building relationships with employers facilitates successful placement of severely disabled veterans. The job market is very competitive and spotlighting the skills a veteran has requires educating employers. When a veteran does not succeed in an interview, an assessment is done to understand why he or she was not selected. This leads to refining the veteran’s interview techniques in preparation for the next opportunity. If a veteran is prepared and ready for employment and the VR counselor has built a relationship with the employer, there is increased likelihood of success in placing the veteran in a career position. A disabled veteran without this level of support is at a distinct disadvantage.

Among the veterans PVA has served is a 37-year-old Army veteran who has a spinal cord disability and PTSD. The veteran was a retail store manager prior to his injury. Through his interaction with the PVA VR counselor, the veteran received career counseling, job development, job referral, job placement, and a laptop computer. The veteran is now employed for 15 hours per week earning $20,000 per year. He is also participating in a distance learning program that will allow him to compete for more advanced employment opportunities. Overall, since its inception, PVA’s vocational rehabilitation program has served over 800 veterans, with over 126 veterans returning to work at an average salary of $39,200.

Easter Seals, a national service provider and advocate for people with disabilities, is also a member of the CCD Veterans Task Force. Easter Seals expanded its mission following World War II to include adults with disabilities, with the purpose of assisting the many servicemembers returning home with disabilities. In 2005, Easter Seals launched its Military and Veterans Initiative to address serious gaps in service to veterans and military families by mobilizing its national community-based provider network. Today, Easter Seals and its affiliates across the country provide transition, employment, respite, assistive technology, and recreational services to veterans and military servicemembers and their families.

Fifty Easter Seals affiliates serving 38 states specialize in helping individuals, including veterans, enter or reenter the workplace. In fiscal year 2009, Easter Seals assisted nearly 74,000 individuals through employment planning, skills training, job search and development, placement and ongoing employment supports. Easter Seals and its affiliate network have leveraged its employment expertise assisting jobseekers with disabilities to provide specialized employment services to veterans, including those with disabilities. Nationally, Easter Seals was selected in 2003 to provide employment services in seven states to low-income jobseekers aged 55 and older, with a priority given to veterans.

Easter Seals recognizes that employment is critical to a returning servicemember’s successful reintegration. Unfortunately, it has been difficult for many of these veterans to find suitable employment. The economy is one cause for the high unemployment rate among returning veterans. However, Easter Seals affiliates that specialize in employment services for veterans also indicate that the lack of knowledge by employers about the background and training of a veteran is another factor.

Many human resources and recruiting personnel have limited experience with servicemembers and veterans. As a result, some have erroneous perceptions about veterans and the impact their combat service could have in the workplace and with other employees. This includes misperceptions about PTSD and TBI. One employer expressed concern about the risks of the veteran “exploding” at work. Easter Seals employment specialists have reported that many veterans who have recently served in Iraq or Afghanistan do not put their combat experience on their resume due to employer stereotypes.

Building on its vast employment and veterans experience, Easter Seals developed an interactive training program called Operation Employ Veterans (OEV) that focuses on awareness-building among human resource directors, recruiters, managers and others involved in hiring decisions. The OEV program contains elements that tackle the false perceptions about veterans in the workplace, and detail the many unique benefits of employing veterans based on their military training and service. Easter Seals continues to provide that training to interested employers across the country.

Easter Seals also works directly with a number of employers who truly recognize the value of hiring a veteran. Easter Seals was contacted by a Best Buy regional manager who oversaw operation and hiring at 10 Best Buy stores in Illinois and Indiana. Neither she nor her recruiters knew how to access the veterans’ community for potential candidates. She sought out Easter Seals for its veterans’ employment experience. An Easter Seals veterans’ employment specialist met with the manager and together they developed a strategy for reaching out to veterans in the region about Best Buy job openings. In addition, Easter Seals worked with Best Buy to track veterans through the application process. The partnership resulted in a veteran hiring within one month of the initial meeting.

Another CCD Veterans Task Force member, the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN), has member agencies that work directly with veterans who encounter employment discrimination based on disability. NDRN is the nonprofit membership organization for the federally mandated Protection and Advocacy (P&A) Systems and Client Assistance Programs (CAP). Collectively, the P&A/CAP network is the largest provider of legally based advocacy services to people with disabilities in the United States.

The following examples of disability related employment discrimination experienced by veterans were provided by NDRN member agency, Equip for Equality (EFE), based in Chicago, Illinois.

  • EFE received a referral from the John Marshall Veterans Clinic regarding a veteran who had been placed on medical leave by her employer. EFE followed up with the veteran requesting assistance and learned that she had worked in the company's security department as a security supervisor. The position entailed carrying a weapon. About two years into her employment, she developed symptoms of PTSD related to her service and her psychiatrist restricted her from carrying a weapon. The company felt that carrying a weapon was an essential function of her position, which could not be accommodated with her restriction. Therefore, the company placed her on medical leave. The veteran sought assistance returning to work.

    EFE advised the veteran that if carrying a weapon was in fact an essential function of her position and could not be accommodated; her employer may have lawfully placed her on leave. Moreover, under the law on reassignment in the Seventh Circuit, the employer was not obligated to reassign her to a vacant position, but had to let her apply for open positions. Despite this law, EFE accepted the case for negotiation because of some favorable case law regarding an employer's duty to aid the job search of employees on leave, her stellar performance record with the company (she was on the company's promotional "fast track"), and the company's stated commitment to employing and assisting veterans.

    The company agreed with EFE that it did not want to lose this employee and extended the veteran’s period of leave. In the meantime, the company's HR department identified a vacant security position that did not require carrying a weapon. The company interviewed her for the position and offered her a job, which she accepted. It is a lateral transfer so she is receiving the same benefits as she did in her previous position, as well as a comparable, if not higher, salary.

  • A veteran had returned to his pre-deployment, civilian job and upon his return to work, he disclosed to his employer that he had sustained a service related TBI, which had resulted in some seizures. The seizures were fully under control with the use of medication and the veteran needed no accommodation to do his job. Regardless, he had decided to disclose this information about his injury to his employer.

    After the disclosure, the employer started to treat him differently and took away some of his job responsibilities. The veteran was concerned that he may lose his job and started seeking alternative employment. He ended up finding a better paying job with benefits, which he preferred over the old job. Per his request, the veteran consulted with an attorney at EFE on laws pertaining to disability disclosure in employment situations in order to ensure that his rights were protected in the future.

  • EFE was contacted by a veteran, who was brought into a management meeting to discuss his work performance. At the end of the meeting, the veteran had been told to “smile more.”

    He told management that he sometimes cannot smile more because he has major depression. The management team then questioned him about his major depression. When the veteran said that he sometimes had suicidal thoughts as a result of the depression (although not at this time), his employer fired him on the spot saying that he was a danger to himself or others.

    EFE assisted the veteran in filing with the EEOC and negotiating with the employer. As a result of EFE’s advocacy, the veteran received a favorable monetary settlement and received a significant amount of information about his rights under the ADA. The veteran, who did not want to return to his old job after what happened, was also able to find other employment.

Although veterans with disabilities face many barriers to obtaining and maintaining meaningful employment, the CCD Veterans Task Force believes that the work of organizations such as PVA, Easter Seals, and the P&A/CAP network agencies across the country, is important in helping disabled veterans to address those challenges. The education provided through these types of programs helps employers and veterans work through potential barriers together.

The CCD Veterans Task Force also believes that the protections provided by the ADA are critical to ensuring that veterans are not discriminated against on the basis of disability. It is crucial that the Commission continue to develop culturally competent outreach materials and partnerships to ensure that the veterans community embraces the benefits of the protections provided by the ADA against employment discrimination.

Thank you for the opportunity to present the views of the CCD Veterans Task Force concerning employment barriers for disabled veterans. We encourage the Commission to continue its exploration of this topic and appreciate your leadership in ending employment discrimination against our nation’s veterans with disabilities. We are ready to work in partnership to ensure that all veterans are able to reintegrate into their communities and remain valued, contributing members of society.


Footnotes

1 Rand Research Brief, Invisible Wounds: Mental Health and Cognitive Care Needs of America’s Returning Veterans, (2008) www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB9336/index1.html.

<sup>2 News Release, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Situation of Veterans – 2010 (Mar. 11, 2011) www.bls.gov/news.release/vet.nr0.htm.

3 Kathy Gurchiek, Good Will Toward Disabled Vets Mixed with Uncertainty over Accommodation, Society for Human Resource Management, January 13, 2011, at www.shrm.org/about/news/Pages/UncertainAccommodations.aspx.

4 News Release, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Table A-5. Employment status of the civilian population 18 years and over by veteran status, period of service, and sex, not seasonally adjusted (Nov. 4, 2011) www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t05.htm.

5 Hiring Unemployed Veterans: Roundtable Before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee (October 6, 2011).

6 Ann Hubbard, A Military-Civilian Coalition for Disability Rights, 75 Miss. L.J. 975, 987 (2006).

7 Rick Little & Nikola Alenkin, Overcoming Barriers to Employment for Veterans: Current Trends and Practical Approaches, USC School of Social Work: Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families, (2011), http://cir.usc.edu/docs/CIR%20Policy%20Brief_Aug2011_R.Little%20%26%20N.Alenkin.pdf.