Home Statewide Politics Bill to Allow Private Employers a Veterans Hire Preference Clears First Hurdle...

Bill to Allow Private Employers a Veterans Hire Preference Clears First Hurdle in State House

242
0

The House Special Committee on Military & Veterans’ Affairs Committee moved a bill Tuesday that will allow private employers in Alaska to express a preference for hiring military veterans.

HB 2, sponsored by House Majority Leader Chris Tuck (D-Anchorage), is seen as a tool to aid the difficult transition between military and civilian life.

The bill does not require any private employer to hire veterans first.

“This is not a mandate,” Tuck said during Tuesday’s hearing. “This is a ‘may,’ instead of a ‘shall.’”

While all 50 states and the District of Columbia have veteran hiring preferences for public positions, private employers are barred by the Civil Rights Act from expressing such a preference unless states pass laws similar to HB 2.

Some Alaska employers have testified for the last three years that they would like to reward veterans with a hiring preference, but are concerned about the legal implications.

In remarks supporting HB 2, Rep. Dan Saddler (R-Eagle River) told committee members,

I think that this is a good effort to make sure… private employers who want to do the right thing by our veterans can have the opportunity to do so without the specter of an equal rights challenge to it coming about. I do respect those who protect the equal rights of people, and that’s an important process, but I think veterans do deserve extra consideration. They raise their right hand, enlist, go off to dangerous places and do things on our behalf, and we should at least be able to offer them a little extra consideration when it comes to coming back into the private sector. I think it’s good that the State offers this preference, and I think it’s appropriate that private employers should be allowed to offer this.

Rep. Justin Parish (D-Juneau), a co-sponsor of the bill, agreed.

“I think it is in the best interests of the State and certainly in our moral obligation to extend this consideration to the service people,” he said.

HB 2 passed out of committee without objection.

The committee did adopt two amendments to the bill based on testimony State Veterans’ Affairs Administrator Verdie Bowen gave last week.

As originally written, HB 2 defined veterans as those who had been honorably discharged.

Rep. George Rauscher (R-Palmer) offered an amendment changing that to “discharged under honorable conditions” so that veterans who receive a general discharge for something like failing a physical fitness test can also benefit from the bill.

A statute (AS 36.30.321) granting a preference in awarding government contracts already defines “veteran” as an “individual who… was separated from service under a condition that was not dishonorable.”

Tuck accepted the amendment to his bill, saying it, too, would cover all those not dishonorably discharged.

Parish offered an amendment allowing active Guard members to receive the hiring preference. It also changes the definition of National Guard member in existing statute.

“These changes will ensure that we have in our hiring pools an important group of individuals whom their government has already trained and conditioned to be focused, flexible, and results-oriented,” Parish said.

Under the State’s veteran hiring preference language for public jobs (AS 39.25.159), a Guard member must have served for eight years in the Alaska National Guard to qualify.

Parish noted that excludes Guard members who may have served for more than eight years in another state before transferring to the Alaska Guard.

Bowen agreed Tuesday the existing language is discriminatory and said the amendment will bring equity to the 30 percent of Alaska Guard members who have served less than eight years. First enlistment is for six years, causing Bowen to wonder why the legislature ever adopted eight years in the statutory definition.

The legislature added Alaska National Guard members to the State hiring preference in 1999 via HB 80. The bill was brought forward as an incentive to remain in the Guard
because retention rates were low.

When freshman legislator and then-Chair of House Military and Veterans’ Affairs Lisa Murkowski (R-Anchorage) asked in the bill’s first hearing why there was an eight-year qualifier, Bruce Gazaway, President of the Alaska National Guard Enlisted Association, testified that it was a “convenient number,” although six years would work fine.

The legislature did not take any action to change it, and the issue was not raised in any
subsequent hearings.

With Tuesday’s amendment, if HB 2 becomes law, the public preference language will reflect that Guard veterans are simply those “released from service in the National Guard under honorable conditions,” dropping the eight-year qualifier.

Saddler called the amendment an “artful” way of sidestepping the question of location of Guard service.

Tuck said extending the benefits of HB 2 to active National Guard members will help recruitment.

“That’s one of the hesitations people may have is how are they going to be able to balance their private employment with their National Guard service,” Tuck said.

Both amendments were adopted without objection.

Tuck, the Chair of House Military & Veterans’ Affairs, said his bill mandating employment leave for Alaskans serving as Guard members in other states will receive its second hearing Thursday. He will likely try to move HB 3 following that hearing.