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Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for Vets Ismael "Junior" Ortiz

Testimony of Acting Assistant Secretary for Veterans'
Employment and Training Ismael "Junior" Ortiz
before the Committee on Veterans' Affairs,
United States House of Representatives,
May 31, 2012

Good morning Chairman Miller, Ranking Member Filner, and distinguished members of the Committee. Thank you for the invitation to participate in today's hearing on "Reviewing the Implementation of Major Provisions of the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011." As I stated when I testified before the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity in December, the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 is an important part of the Administration's efforts to ensure that America fulfills its obligations to our returning Service Members, Veterans, and their families.

President Obama, Secretary Solis, and Secretary Shinseki are committed to serving these brave men and women as well as they have served us. In support of this goal, the Department of Labor (DOL) is working to implement the VOW Act along with other new initiatives to train, transition and employ Veterans. These initiatives are in addition to the core programs DOL has been administering for decades, providing Veterans and transitioning Service Members with critical resources and expertise to assist and prepare them to obtain meaningful careers, maximize their employment opportunities, and protect their employment rights.

DOL is fully committed to serving our transitioning Service Members, Veterans and their families through our current programs as well as new initiatives like VRAP. DOL ensures that Veterans, disabled Veterans and eligible military spouses receive priority of service by the staff of all DOL-funded employment and training programs including the many programs operated out of the approximately 2,800 One-Stop Career Centers (One-Stop Centers) that serve as the cornerstone for the Nation's workforce investment system. As you know, much of the Department's work with Veterans and other eligible individuals is concentrated on maximizing the employment and training opportunities developed through strong relationships with the State Workforce Agencies. DOL has decades of experience working with the employer community, at both local and national levels, to recruit, train, and find employment for Veterans and transitioning Service Members.

As a result, we are able to provide millions of Veterans with the training; assistance and support they need to find and retain employment. During the last program year alone (PY 2010), DOL served over 1.7 million Veterans in various employment and training programs with strong outcomes. For instance, the annual outcome data reported on December 31, 2011 shows that nearly 570,000 Veterans who were unemployed at the time of their program participation found employment within 90 days of program completion.

The VOW Act has enhanced and added to the programs and services DOL provides to Veterans, transitioning Service Members and their families. Since the legislation was enacted in November of 2011, DOL has been working diligently to implement the provisions as I will explain section by section below:

VETERANS RETRAINING ASSISTANCE PROGRAM

Section 211 of the VOW Act established the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program for unemployed Veterans aged 35 to 60. The VRAP, which entitles eligible Veterans to retraining assistance for up to 12 months when they pursue a qualified program or training, must be up and running no later than July 1, 2012. The VOW Act specifies that the Department of Veterans' Affairs (VA) and DOL will jointly administer the process for determining Veterans' eligibility for VRAP. Specifically, DOL is responsible for determining applicants' initial eligibility based on age, employment status, and previous participation in other job training programs. Following DOL's determination, the VA is required to certify applicants based on several additional criteria, such as the conditions of an applicant's discharge from active duty service and his or her eligibility for other forms of assistance. Other DOL-specific requirements include identifying the high-demand occupations that will be the focus of VRAP training, and contacting Veterans within 30 days of completing or terminating the VRAP training to inform them of the employment placement services that are available to them. The VOW Act also requires DOL to work with VA to establish a process for resolving appeals of eligibility determinations made by the agencies.

We are well on our way to fully implementing this program. Early on, DOL established the necessary Memorandum of Agreement with VA to execute this program. DOL then identified over 200 high-demand occupations in which Veterans could be trained. These occupations were selected because they meet the VRAP training criteria and are projected to have high growth rates and/or large numbers of openings based on Bureau of Labor Statistics employment projections for 2010 to 2020 (more than 10,000 national openings and above-average projected growth rates of greater than 14.3 percent over the period). In fact, the more than 200 high-demand occupations represent 14,796,700 total projections over this period. Additionally, DOL has enhanced the My Next Move for Veterans Web site to display VRAP information during online career searches, which allows VRAP applicants an opportunity to explore and learn about their career options. After working closely with VA to create an online application process, we began accepting applications on May 15, 2012.

Outreach and Technical Assistance

DOL has been engaged in an extensive outreach effort in collaboration with the VA to inform eligible Veterans, the public workforce system, Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs), and other stakeholders on VRAP. These efforts include the creation and dissemination of fact sheets, press releases, blog entries, email alerts, flyers, and other communication techniques. In addition, both the Veterans' Employment and Training Service (VETS) and Employment and Training Administration (ETA) have issued guidance to their respective constituencies. VETS issued Veterans' Program Letter 7-12, and ETA issued Training and Employment Notice 43-11, which provided information about VRAP to the public workforce system. We will make additional information available as procedures and protocols for implementing the program are finalized. DOL has strongly encouraged State Workforce Agencies, Disabled Veterans' Outreach Program (DVOP) specialists and Local Veterans' Employment Representatives (LVERs) funded by VETS through the Jobs for Veterans State Grants Program, and other workforce system stakeholders, to assist potentially eligible Veterans who come into a One-Stop Career Center, and to reach out to potentially eligible Veterans who have previously received services through the Wegner-Peyser Act, Workforce Investment Act (WIA), or from DVOPs or LVERs. DOL's regional offices will maintain contact with the states, DVOPs, and LVERs, as well as support outreach by providing technical assistance, information about possible outreach opportunities, and informal check-ins.

A DOL and VA webinar was held on May 9, 2012 to inform and train the public workforce system on the VRAP program. The webinar included 398 attendees, and over 4,800 people have viewed the archived webinar to date. Topics included: an overview of the VRAP program, the eligibility determination process from both the DOL and VA perspective, a discussion of the high demand occupations for VRAP, a demonstration of changes to the website My Next Move for Veterans, which included changes to sync with the VRAP program and a walk-through of the online application by VA staff. DOL also sent out an email push to more than 4,000 members of the workforce system. The audience of the webinar and email push included: State Directors of Veterans Employment and Training, State Labor Commissioners, State Veterans Agency Directors, State WIA Liaisons, State Workforce Administrators, State Veterans Coordinators, members and staff of local Workforce Investment Boards, One-Stop Career Center Managers, ETA Regional Administrators, and VETS Regional Administrators.

TRAINING AND REHABILITATION FOR VETERANS WITH SERVICE-CONNECTED DISABILITIES WHO HAVE EXHAUSTED RIGHTS TO UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS UNDER STATE LAW

Section 233 of the VOW Act amends current law to allow individuals with service-connected disabilities who have exhausted Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits under state law to seek assistance from additional rehabilitation programs specified in the legislation as of tomorrow, June 1, 2012. The VA is primarily responsible for the administration of this provision; however, DOL had a key role in providing VA with input to developing the eligibility determination process. The agreed approach for determining that an individual has exhausted regular state UI benefits is that VA will send a letter to UI agencies with the applicant's information to request validation of exhaustion of benefits along with a release of information form indicating the applicant's consent. To determine that the individual has no future entitlement to regular state benefits, they will be instructed to apply for benefits and receive a denial. This process allows for a review of all recent employment that may trigger new benefit entitlement. It is also used for other benefit programs that require information related to UI, such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. The Department is in the process of issuing an Unemployment Insurance Program Letter to the states that describes the program and shares VA's approach to validating both exhaustion of regular UI benefits and/or no new/additional entitlement to state UI benefits.

MANDATORY PARTICIPATION OF MEMBERS OF THE ARMED FORCES IN THE TRANSITION ASSISTANCE PROGRAM (TAP) OF DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE

Section 221 of the VOW Act requires mandatory participation, with some exemption authority, in the Employment Assistance, Job Training Assistance, and Other Transitional Services under title 10 United States Code section 1144, better known as the TAP Employment Workshop. While this requirement is the responsibility of the Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security, the Secretary of Labor is required under this section to enter into a detailed agreement to carry out this section with the aforementioned Secretaries and the Secretary of VA. The department leads are in the process of redrafting the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) to ensure there is clear understanding and guidance as to how the mandatory participation requirement will be carried out.

INDIVIDUALIZED ASSESSMENT FOR MEMBERS OF THE ARMED FORCES UNDER TRANSITION ASSISTANCE ON EQUIVALENCE BETWEEN SKILLS DEVELOPED IN MILITARY OCCUPATIONAL SPECIALTIES AND QUALIFICATIONS REQUIRED FOR CIVILIAN EMPLOYMENT WITH THE PRIVATE SECTOR

Section 222 of the VOW Act requires DOL, in consultation with the VA and DOD, to enter into a contract with an organization for a study that identifies equivalence of skills between military and civilian employment. DOL currently has online tools that "identify equivalences" by enabling Veterans to enter a military occupation code or title and look up related information on related civilian careers and on related job openings by geographic area. DOL has also received information from DOD regarding their ongoing skills assessment activities.

Our plan is to leverage current DoD research already underway to identify additional equivalencies and enhance existing online tools to support individualized assessments. We also plan to expand the work being conducted by DoD to identify civilian equivalencies for additional military occupations not included in the current DoD study.

TRANSITION ASSISTANCE PROGRAM CONTRACTING

Section 223 of the VOW Act requires DOL to contract out TAP counseling, employment services, and assessments at all locations by November 21, 2013. The contract specifications and statement of work have been drafted to meet this requirement. DOL published a Request for Information (RFI) on May 14, 2012, to gather information to help make a decision on what steps to take next. As DOL testified before the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity last year, we are in the process of changing over to an all-contract facilitator staff for the DOL Employment Workshop and believe we are on track to meet this requirement by the deadline. In the interim, the VETS-funded state employees currently facilitating the workshops are being trained in delivering the new curriculum. Professional contract facilitators will be trained in delivery of the new curriculum once the contract is in place.

IMPROVED ACCESS TO APPRENTICESHIP PROGRAMS FOR MEMBERS OF THE ARMED FORCES WHO ARE BEING SEPARATED FROM ACTIVE DUTY OR RETIRED

Section 225 of the VOW Act permits members of the armed forces who are eligible for TAP to participate in Registered Apprenticeship or Pre-Apprenticeship programs. DOL believes there are numerous opportunities for Veterans in the Registered Apprenticeship system and is exploring potential connections to the United States Military Apprenticeship Program (USMAP) and Guard Apprenticeship Program Initiative (GAPI). Last month, we created a VA/DOL flyer outlining benefits available to transitioning Service Members under the VOW Act that includes language referencing TAP eligible Service Members' ability to participate in either the Registered Apprenticeship or Pre-Apprenticeship programs. In addition, we have established a working group of the Secretary's Advisory Committee on Apprenticeship consisting of employer, labor and public representatives from the Registered Apprenticeship Community to identify options to improve access for Veterans to Registered Apprenticeship programs.

COLLABORATIVE VETERANS' TRAINING, MENTORING, AND PLACEMENT PROGRAM

Section 234 of the VOW Act amends chapter 41 of title 38 U.S.C. to require DOL to establish a collaborative Veterans training, mentoring and placement grant program. More specifically, the Secretary would award grants to not more than three eligible nonprofit organizations for periods of two years to provide training and mentoring for eligible Veterans who seek employment. While $4.5 million was authorized to be appropriated for the period consisting of FY 2012 and 2013, funds were not appropriated for this new program. Although VETS cannot carry out Section 234 at this time, on April 30, we issued a Solicitation for Grant Applications for 2012 Veterans' Workforce Investment Program grants. These VWIP grants are similarly intended encourage innovative practices, including mentoring.

ENHANCEMENT OF DEMONSTRATION PROGRAM ON CREDENTIALING AND LICENSING OF VETERANS

Section 237 of the VOW Act amends section 4114 of title 38 U.S.C., requiring VETS to conduct a demonstration project on credentials in consultation with ETA, followed by a study and a report no later than180 days after November 21, 2013. VETS and ETA staff are working closely to complete the procurement process and begin the demonstration project by June 30, 2012.

INCLUSION OF PERFORMANCE MEASURES IN ANNUAL REPORT ON VETERAN JOB COUNSELING, TRAINING, AND PLACEMENT PROGRAMS OF THE DEPARTMENT OF LABOR

Section 238 of the VOW Act amends section 4107(c) of title 38 U.S.C. by requiring the annual report mandated under that section to include new performance measures on DOL Veteran counseling, training and placement programs. DOL has developed the Information Collection Request to modify and extend the Labor Exchange Reporting System to collect the new data and is awaiting approval as part of the Paperwork Reduction Act. Additional data elements will be added to the Labor Exchange Reporting System (LERS) to collect median earnings as well as average earnings. We anticipate this change occurring before July 1, 2012.

CLARIFICATION OF PRIORITY OF SERVICE FOR VETERANS IN DEPARTMENT OF LABOR JOB TRAINING PROGRAMS

Section 239 of the VOW Act amends current law to clarify that priority of service includes "giving access to such services to a covered person before a non-covered person, or if resources are limited giving access to such services to a covered person instead of a non-covered person." To enforce and track this change in law there will be another report requirement added (9002F) to the LERS by July 1, 2012 to the system for Priority of Service Reporting.

EVALUATION OF INDIVIDUALS RECEIVING TRAINING AT THE NATIONAL VETERANS' EMPLOYMENT AND TRAINING SERVICES INSTITUTE (NVTI)

Section 240 of the VOW Act amends section 4109 of title 38 U.S.C. to require that Disabled Veteran Outreach Program (DVOP) specialists and Local Veterans Employment Representatives (LVER) who receive training from NVTI are given a final examination. Examination results are required to be shared with the entity that sponsored the DVOP or LVER who received the training. DOL oversaw the creation and validation of examination currently in place. DOL also developed the remedial training and testing for those who do not pass the final examination. The first examinations were administered to the NVTI trainees on May 21, 2012.

REQUIREMENTS FOR FULL-TIME DISABLED VETERANS' OUTREACH PROGRAM SPECIALISTS AND LOCAL VETERANS' EMPLOYMENT REPRESENTATIVES

Section 241 requires the Secretary to conduct audits to ensure that DVOPs and LVERs are complying with the mandated responsibilities and further, are not serving non-Veterans. Additionally, Section 241 allows state governors to request a waiver and hire consolidated DVOP/LVER staff. VETS will issue a Veterans Program Letter (VPL) clearly articulating the expectations for the DVOPs and LVERs under this section to the state workforce agencies. Finally, DOL is developing auditing protocols for pilot testing. The audits will begin in the third quarter of this fiscal year. To implement the consolidated position, DOL developed the relevant criteria and is now working with a few states to validate the process and determine potential impact on the overall workforce system. DOL expects to implement this section in July 2012 to coincide with the release of the Jobs for Veterans State Grants' (JVSG) state planning guidance issued that month.

RETURNING HEROES AND WOUNDED WARRIORS WORK OPPORTUNITY TAX CREDITS

Section 261 of the VOW Act includes the extension of important tax credits that were an integral part of the President's agenda. Specifically, the VOW Act amends Section 51 the Internal Revenue Code by amending and expanding the definition of "qualified Veterans" to grant a tax credit to employers for hiring certain qualified Veterans, called the Work Opportunity Tax Credit or WOTC. The VOW Act extends the current category for Veterans receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, extends and amends the categories of disability for Veterans with service-connected disabilities, and established two new unemployed Veteran categories, one for Veterans who have been unemployed for four weeks, and one for Veterans who have been unemployed for six months. VOW further amends the Internal Revenue Code by allowing 501(c) tax-exempt organizations that hire qualified Veterans to claim the WOTC against the employer's share of social security tax imposed under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act.

While the IRS is primarily responsible for carrying out the tax credit provisions of the VOW Act, the State Workforce Agencies (SWAs) process, verify and certify timely filed and eligible certification requests by employers or their representatives. DOL funds the SWAs' administration of these provisions, provides technical assistance to the SWAs, oversees overall implementation and tracks the WOTC data on the number of certifications issued by the SWAs to employers for Veterans hired. Once employers receive a SWA certification, employers can then claim the actual tax credit with the IRS. As a result of the VOW Act amendments and provisions, ETA issued Training and Employment Guidance Letter 30-11, which provided the public workforce system with guidance on this new provision and related IRS guidance on submission of Form 8850.

Repurposing of Funds

In addition, the Department of Labor Appropriations Act, 2012 (P.L. 112-74, Division F, Title I) provided the authority to repurpose resources from an existing demonstration project to make them available for other pilots, demonstrations, and research activities, and for implementation of the VOW Act within the Employment and Training Administration. A total of $5.489 million of PY 2011 resources is now available for these purposes, including updating state data systems for the Priority of Service reporting requirements and adjustments to the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, updating Federal management information systems to collect revised performance reports from states to support implementation of VOW, studying and disseminating equivalencies between military and civilian occupations, and providing technical assistance to the public workforce system on implementation of VOW.

Conclusion

Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Filner, and distinguished members of the Committee, DOL and our sister agencies are committed to ensuring successful implementation of the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 in support of Veterans' success in the civilian labor market. We are well on our way to fulfilling this goal. Thank you again for the opportunity to testify today. I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have.