Editor’s note: The following is an opinion piece. The writer is not employed by Military Times and the views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Military Times or its editorial staff.
The 2016 National Defense Authorization Act included language that led to a change in the priority level of veterans preference during reduction-in-force procedures for the Defense Department. The move could make the jobs of hundreds, if not thousands, of veterans and qualifying family members unfairly vulnerable to RIF.
The change affects the vast majority of DoD’s hundreds of thousands of civilian employees by reordering the list of retention factors used to determine who’ll survive RIF. In January, DoD stripped veterans preference of its prestige by moving it from second in a four-factor RIF list to fourth in a five-factor list.
The previous list — tenure within an agency, veterans preference eligibility, total length of federal service and overall performance rating — matched the Office of Personnel Management’s retention factor list, ensuring equity across the board at DoD. However, changing the rules resulted in a new list that blatantly contradicts OPM’s setup.
The new list starts with overall performance rating, then moves to tenure within the agency, average score of performance ratings, veterans preference eligibility and service computation date, which generally reflects the start date for federal employment and is used to determine retirement eligibility and other benefits.
DoD’s explanation for the change has been that employees with high performance ratings should be retained before all others, and that the new procedure will result in bolstering veteran employees’ retention as DoD managers attempt to retain employees with an exemplary work history. However, that claim is inaccurate because employees are racked and stacked into categories of tenure group and months of measured performance before their performance is even considered.
This setup gives employees with more tenure an unjust advantage over newly hired employees, regardless of any sub-par performance ratings. To be blunt, this means that because veterans preference eligibility has been bumped down the ladder, newly hired veterans or eligible family members with strong performance still may be terminated while civilians with tenure are retained.
And we wonder why agencies like the Veterans Affairs Department have such a problem with personnel integrity.
DoD released a summarized fact sheet in January to explain the change — it’s borderline useless unless you happen to be a federal attorney schooled in government language. For example, one section states that employees of alternative personnel systems such as Acquisition Demonstration, Science and Technology Reinvention Laboratories and the Defense Civilian Intelligence Personnel system are not susceptible to RIF under the new policy … as long as RIF procedures are in compliance with the policy. It’s unclear which systems are in compliance, so these employees very well could fall under the new setup.
In letters addressed to President Trump, Defense Department officials and multiple lawmakers on key committees addressing this issue, Vietnam Veterans of America has expressed our indignation that DoD — the very branch of our government that demands a higher standard when creating our veterans — has opted not to account for their service to our country in a way that sets them apart from civilian employees. Nor will they consider the sacrifice a family member has paid to gain veterans preference eligibility — the sponsor may have a 100 percent service-connected disability, or have been killed in the line of duty.
It’s become obvious to VVA that DoD is consumed by its loyalty to employees with tenure while turning a blind eye to the hard work and sacrifice paid by newer veterans and their families.
Veterans spend the entirety of their military service as expendable pawns for our government to use at will, and these policy inequities mean veterans continue to do so even after they hang up their uniforms. It is time that DoD, along with Congress and the Trump administration, reaffirms priority to the men and women who have put their lives on the line for this great nation. Their days of expendability should be over.
Bethany Keirans served more than eight years as an Air Force medic, deploying with special operations units. She’s an assistant director for policy and government affairs at Vietnam Veterans of America. Her husband is an active-duty Air Force master sergeant.