SUPPORTING our veterans is one of the few things our fractious and divided America can agree on.
Tea partiers and liberals together will honor vets this Memorial Day with speeches and parades, but, unfortunately, will promptly forget them until Nov. 11, when this whole charade begins anew.
Vets transitioning to civilian life face many difficulties, not the least of which is finding good family- sustaining jobs, especially now. The number of homeless and underemployed and unemployed vets is a national embarrassment.
In Pennsylvania, the State Civil Service Commission has been quietly doing its part to ensure that vets have preferences for jobs. Veterans get points added to test scores and preferences in hiring. The success is obvious - an average of 23 percent of new hires to civil service-covered positions each fiscal year are veterans. (About 70 percent of all state jobs are covered by civil service.) This number is dramatic, since only 8.8 percent of all Pennsylvanians have veteran status, and that includes veterans who are either retired or already employed in the private sector.
You'd think the government agencies involved would be grateful for this success, but in my 6 1/2 years as chairman of the State Civil Service Commission, most agencies whose hiring practices we audited tried to avoid this requirement.
The reality is that the preference for vets is regarded as burdensome. Agencies would complain that the commission was too forceful in enforcing the preference, but the simple truth is that without a strong civil-service system that monitors and enforces the preferences, the number of vets hired for government jobs would be much smaller.
Let's look at noncivil-service state agencies. While the law also requires these agencies to give preferences to vets, that rarely happens. Last summer, I obtained through the right-to-know law employment data from Auditor General Jack Wagner's office.
Anyone who knows Wagner is aware that he's a proud vet. The Auditor General's Office is mostly a noncivil-service agency and most hiring decisions aren't controlled by civil-service rules or test results.
Theoretically, if it chose to, it could hire qualified vets for almost every vacancy it has. And Wagner even scolded the Civil Service Commission, in a 2008 audit, for its failure to "take steps to require state agencies to consider veterans when filling all job vacancies." But in reviewing the data from January 2005 through June 2010 that I obtained from his office, even I was shocked to find that only 6 percent of 468 staff vacancies were filled by hiring vets.
The fact is that without civil-service preferences and protections, bureaucrats will not hire vets. It's even more galling to see that some agencies will try to remove civil-service coverage - supposedly in the name of "good government" and "more flexibility in hiring" but motivated at least in part to avoid the veterans preferences.
A particularly egregious example was proposed in a state Senate bill in 2009 that would have exempted many positions at the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs - the very agency that runs veterans homes and supports vets - from civil- service coverage.
It didn't say that removing the vets preference was its motivation, but it instead used code, such as needing to hire "younger, more enthusiastic nurses . . . right out of nursing school."
I was eventually allowed to testify at Senate hearings - after which the bill promptly died. In off-the-record discussions with DMVA officials and other elected officials, it was confirmed to me that one of the agency's unstated goals was to bypass the veterans' preference.
Examples like these abound. I am concerned with the recent Liquor Control Board bill (H.B. 1356), which would eliminate civil-service coverage for "more flexibility in hiring." This would result in fewer qualified vets getting entry-level jobs, and, if the PLCB were to be privatized, thousands of employed vets would lose well-paying, family-sustaining jobs.
While the preference, including added points and absolute preference in hiring, does reduce some hiring flexibility, the reality is that Pennsylvania owes its vets more than just parades and speeches because of the sacrifices, courage and service they have given us.
Contrary to the myths, civil- service systems are nimble, can hire qualified employees quickly and efficiently, remove patronage and nepotism from hiring decisions, and can help our deserving veterans find good jobs with benefits.
Politics and patronage aside - we owe them that!