Home Statewide Politics Bill Aimed at Boosting Veteran Employment Heard in Alaska House

Bill Aimed at Boosting Veteran Employment Heard in Alaska House

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“Hiring Heroes Job Fair.” Photo by Pennsylvania National Guard, Creative Commons Licensing.

The House Special Committee on Military & Veterans’ Affairs held the first hearing Tuesday on a bill that would allow private businesses in Alaska to express a preference for hiring military veterans.

“The road to employment can be difficult for veterans returning to civilian life,” House Majority Leader Chris Tuck (D-Anchorage) wrote in a sponsor statement. “According to a 2012 survey of veterans from all eras, two-thirds of the veterans name finding a job as the greatest challenge in transitioning.”

Tuck, who is Chair of House Military & Veterans’ Affairs, told the committee, “Alaska is home to the highest number of veterans per capita.”

Veterans are steadily reliable workers who display loyalty and civic mindedness, said State Veterans’ Affairs Administrator Verdie Bowen.

Dave Demenno, owner of Alaska Land Clearing, said he employs three veterans. They demonstrate superior leadership skills, work well independently, and are always on time, he said.

Anchorage IT service provider Russell Ball agreed, saying, “Veterans have been some of my best employees over the years.”

While governments at all levels may and do state a preference for hiring veterans, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars private businesses from doing so because historically most veterans have been male. A preference for veterans would therefore put equal opportunity employment into question.

Consequently, Ball testified that as an employer, anytime there is a discussion about hiring preference, it makes the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

However, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act permits veteran hiring preference laws at the state level.

Military and Veterans’ Affairs Deputy Commissioner Bob Doehl called it the “Gander Rule”: “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

So far, 37 states and the District of Columbia have used this rule to “opt in.”

It’s time to extend that opportunity to Alaska employers and veterans by passing HB 2, said Tuck.

“I would like to have that flexibility,” testified Patty Wilbanks, owner of Polar Marine Alaska.

Wilbanks said she is gearing up to hire for the Summer.

Steven Williams at the Department of Labor & Workforce Development (DOL) told the committee that HB 2 would allow private employers to advertise specifically to veterans and encourage them to apply. Employers will be protected from potential civil suits alleging related discrimination.

Bowen said he anticipates that HB 2 will have the biggest impact in the oil industry. Smaller oil companies have wanted to hire veterans, but have been unable to express a preference for them, he said.

“We’re adding more tools to the employer’s bag to hire more people,” Bowen told committee members.

Tuck introduced the bill at the start of the last legislature. It passed the House unanimously, but it quietly died in the Senate Rules Committee, chaired by Sen. Charlie Huggins (R-Wasilla), a veteran who often referenced his ties to the military.

Huggins chose not to run for re-election in the 2016 race. His seat is now occupied by Sen. David Wilson (R-Wasilla). The new Senate Rules Chair is Sen. Kevin Meyer (R-Anchorage).

Both DOL and DMVA have said HB 2 will have no fiscal impact, reducing potential opposition to mostly political, rather than practical, concerns.

Two other committee members, Rep. Justin Parish (D-Juneau) and House Rules Chair Gabrielle LeDoux (R-Anchorage), have signed on as co-sponsors of HB 2.

The Department of Defense has made passage of veteran hiring preference bills a top priority.

In a letter of support, the office of the federal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Military Community and Family Policy, wrote that more than 2,000 veterans returned to Alaska in 2015 after separating from the military.

“We believe that the number separating is likely to remain steady in the near future,” the letter says. “As of November 2016, national Bureau of Labor statistics show the jobless rate for young male veterans aged 18-24 still exceeded their civilian counterparts (239,000 veterans aged 18-24 were unemployed versus 159,000 of their civilian counterparts). Enactment of this policy is another positive step toward reducing the number left unemployed.”

Suicide rates are exceptionally high among veterans. Employment is seen as one factor that could lower those statistics.

As he did in 2015, Ball testified that the transition between military and civilian life can be scary.

What better way of getting veterans to break through that transition than declaring a veteran hiring preference, said Ball. The bill provides employers a way to say, “Thank you for your service.”

It does show them that the community and the state care, agreed Wilbanks.

Private employers are going to need to step in and hire more veterans after President Donald Trump instituted a federal hiring freeze on Monday, she added.

Tuck is considering an amendment to HB 2 that would extend the benefits of the bill to active members of the Alaska National Guard.

Bowen recommended that the bill be changed to cover those discharged “under honorable conditions,” rather than those who have been “honorably discharged.” He also recommended the bill be open to veterans of the Alaska State Defense Force.

Tuck said he will consider amendments at a hearing sometime next week.

On Thursday, Tuck is calling up for a hearing another of his own bills, HB 3, which would guarantee a leave of absence to Alaskans serving in the National Guard in other states. It would also allow them to return from service to the same positions they left for Guard duty.