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Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
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Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez

Remarks By
Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez,
National Coalition for Homeless Veterans,
2014 Annual Conference,
Washington, D.C.,
May 28, 2014

[as prepared for delivery]

Good morning and thank you so much. It's an honor to speak with you today about one of the pressing challenges of our time — our national obligation to end veterans' homelessness. The work all of you do reflects the true meaning of President Lincoln's pledge "to care for him who shall have borne the battle."

I want to thank John Driscoll, Patrick Ryan and everyone at the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans for the remarkable work you do. And also a special greeting to Charles "Chick" Ciccolella, former Assistant Secretary of Labor for Veterans' Employment and Training and NCGV vice chair, for his leadership over the years on behalf of veterans and homeless veterans in particular.

For me, these issues aren't just part of the job description, as Secretary of Labor and Vice Chair of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. They're a family commitment, even woven into my DNA. My wife has worked for years as an attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. My father served as a legal immigrant in the Army. My uncles became citizens while serving their adopted country during World War II. And my father would eventually make his living as a physician at a VA hospital. I am proud that the work of the Department of Labor allows me to continue their service to those who have served us.

As you all well know, the homelessness challenge — for veterans and others -- doesn't exist in a vacuum. It can't be separated from employment, health care, education and an array of other support services. And that's why the Labor Department is committed to a partnership with other federal agencies in this space. To successfully tackle a problem this great, we need to work together and achieve synergy, imploding stovepipes and building a whole greater than the sum of our parts. We've already made substantial progress — thanks in large measure to our collective efforts through the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, we've reduced homelessness by 24 percent between 2010 and 2013.

At its core, the Department of Labor is the Department of Opportunity. And who deserves opportunity more than the veterans who've sacrificed so much to protect and ensure it? At the Labor Department, we provide the tools and the resources that allow people to live out their highest and best dreams. We make sure hard work and responsibility are rewarded. We help people punch their ticket to the middle class. We make sure everyone in America can access sturdy ladders of opportunity.

For a variety of reasons, the veterans you serve find themselves slipping off that ladder. Working together, your organizations, Congress, and the Administration are helping strengthen the rungs on that ladder for homeless veterans... and I'm proud to say more of them are climbing up it again than were five years ago.

In March, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its 2013 report on veterans' employment. And it showed that the situation, particularly for women veterans, is improving — thanks in large measure to the government's focus on veterans' employment and the public-private partnerships we've been able to forge.

The Labor Department's Veterans' Employment and Training Service works with Joining Forces, an initiative led by the First Lady and Dr. Jill Biden, to encourage private sector employers to increase veterans hiring. Earlier this year, we hosted the First Lady at the Labor Department for the announcement that the construction industry would hire 100,000 veterans over the next five years.

We also partner directly with employers to devise hiring strategies and solutions that leverage government resources to connect ready-to-work veterans with ready-to-be filled jobs. And we partner with members of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans to give homeless veterans jobs — jobs that put them back on the rungs of the ladders of opportunity and climbing. Together we are making a difference.

The Veterans' Employment and Training Service mission can be summed up in 3 "P"s: Prepare, Provide, and Protect. We prepare our separating service members to transition from the military to the civilian workforce. We provide our veterans with the critical resources, expertise, and training they need to help them identify and obtain meaningful careers. And we protect the employment rights of the women and men who serve this nation.

So, how do we prepare our separating service members for civilian employment? Before transition, ideally a few months before separation, we provide a three-day Employment Workshop on military bases. In fiscal year 2013, we conducted nearly 6,000 workshops for nearly 190,000 participants. These sessions focus on the mechanics of getting a job. Participants leave the workshop with tangible products -- including an individual transition plan, a skills assessment, job search results, a resume and cover letter.

The second "P" is Provide. We provide individual employment assistance through over 2,500 American Job Centers or AJCs nationwide. Resume assistance, job leads, career counseling, training opportunities — you name it, you can get it at an AJC. During the last program year, AJCs served over 18 million Americans, 1.4 million of whom were veterans. Over 500,000 of those veterans were placed in meaningful jobs within 90 days of completing their program.

While the AJCs are for all Americans, veterans receive priority of service there and in all DOL-funded employment and job-training programs. Veterans go to the front of the line. At the AJCs, every veteran can meet individually with a workforce development professional. Together, they will assess the veteran's skills, abilities, aptitudes, employment readiness and needs as well as provide personalized job search and placement assistance. If a veteran has a Significant Barrier to Employment, like homelessness, he or she is eligible to receive intensive employment services from a Disabled Veteran Outreach Program specialist.

In addition to employment services, AJCs have partnerships with federal, state, and local services. So we can refer a veteran any number of places if he or she needs additional support — the Department of Veterans Affairs, Unemployment Insurance, Vocational Rehabilitation, Adult Education and Literacy, Postsecondary Vocational Education, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and many more.

So veterans can get the employment help they need, and get connected to a much broader network of benefits and social services at an AJC. It all begins with the initial intake where each veteran's needs are individually evaluated.

On to the third "P" — protect. VETS protects service members' employment rights through the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. USERRA, as it's known, enforces the veterans' re-employment rights to return to civilian employment once their military tour of duty concludes. VETS protects Veterans' Preference in Federal Employment by investigating and attempting to resolve Veterans' Preference complaints. Also, through collaboration with the DOL Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), VETS provides support to federal contractors who must comply with VEVRAA and 503 rules, rules that are designed to incentivize firms with federal contracts to create more employment opportunities for veterans and those with disabilities.

If someone you know is concerned that they may have experienced a violation of their employment rights because of military service, please encourage them to connect with VETS about their rights and protections.

As advocates for homeless veterans, all of you gathered here today and your colleagues around the country are also in the Prepare, Provide, and Protect business. And I'm proud to say that $38 million in Department of Labor VETS' grants support you in that mission.

Under a technical assistance grant awarded by VETS, the Coalition provides guidance and information about program development, administration, governance and funding to all of the nation's homeless veteran service providers. Your conferences, consultations, publications, and website are a comprehensive information resource for the programs that serve homeless veterans.

I want to also thank the partners here today who are grantees of the Department's Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program grants. As HVRP grantee partners, you provide job training, counseling, and placement services to expedite the reintegration of homeless veterans into the labor force. Homeless veterans like Peter Langsam.

After serving in the U.S. Navy, Peter Langsam made a career for himself in the culinary field. After working as a line cook at many places over the years, Peter landed a job at a restaurant near the water in New York. But when Hurricane Sandy destroyed the building, it left Peter unemployed. He eventually lost his housing and ended up in a shelter for homeless veterans. He turned to Easter Seals of New York, a grantee that provides career counseling to veterans. There, he got an employment plan customized to his needs. He said the program "let me know what resources I could use and how to use them." With a new set of culinary knives provided courtesy of Easter Seals, Peter accepted a job as a chef at a New York resort, where he now prepares his signature dish of salmon with citrus salsa.

Together, we are helping homeless veterans like Reginald Giles.

Reginald Giles served in the Army as an Infantry Airborne Specialist. After leaving the military, Reginald went down the wrong path and spent 12 years in prison. Upon his release, he decided to try something different to get different results. A VA clinic referred him to Catholic Charities, a HVRP grantee in Chicago, and he enrolled in their program to get employment and housing assistance. Reginald met with job counselors, received supportive services, and went through a job readiness workshop before beginning his job search. Now, he works part time at the Italian Fiesta Pizzeria on the South Side of Chicago and attends Kennedy-King College full time in the Culinary Arts program. Reginald is motivated and inspired to continue making positive choices that will allow him to climb those ladders of opportunity.

Together, we are helping homeless veterans like Scott Davis.

After serving in the Army, Scott spent 15 years working in construction. In 2008, he decided to make a career change and received a community college associates' degree and a bachelor's degree in business administration at the University of Michigan-Flint. But he still couldn't find work in his community; and without a car, he couldn't accept jobs that were further away. By the end of August his savings had dwindled, and he became homeless. He spent much of his free time in a computer lab searching the web for job leads, and it was there that he saw a flyer advertising the services of HVRP grantee Goodwill Industries of Mid-Michigan.

Last October, he enrolled in the HVRP program. In November a position became available in Goodwill's Workforce Development Department, and it was the perfect fit. Scott now has a place to live and a car to drive, and he's in a position to help other homeless and at-risk veterans. Scott knows first-hand what they need and what they are going through. He'll be a key member in helping Goodwill work with veterans to get the tools they need to take that first step away from homelessness -- employment.

Some of you here today receive the Labor Department's Homeless Female Veterans and Veterans with Families Program grants. While women veterans comprise 10 percent of the veteran population in this country, they actually make up 13 percent of veterans in the civilian labor force. As older male veterans of the draft era "age out" and are replaced by veterans from the all-volunteer era that began in 1973, the percent of women in the veteran population will continue to increase. In fact, women currently comprise 20 percent of those who served after 9/11.

As women veterans, some will experience the same challenges as their male veteran counterparts. Some will face barriers experienced by non-veteran working women. Oftentimes, women veterans are confronted with both.

Rosa Iqbal was in the Army from 1978 to 1982 and served at Walter Reed Medical Hospital during her enlistment. She was honorably discharged, eventually moving to Canada and settling into civilian life. But after a failed marriage, she fell on hard times, and she returned to her native Connecticut with only the clothes on her back. She entered a pattern of couch surfing and other unstable living arrangements. But after seeking help at the New Britain town hall she was referred to grantee Veterans, Inc. where she enrolled in employment and training and housing assistance programs. With a good work history it didn't take long for her to be hired by Sodexo Inc., a patient support company based out of UConn Hospital. Today she is self-sufficient for the first time since 1982, has a positive future ahead, and is in the process of signing a lease for her own place in New Britain.

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For every success story like those, there are still more veterans for whom every day is a struggle.

Last Friday, I met at the White House with a group of people who have been unemployed for six months or longer, and there were a few veterans in the group. Their stories are heartbreaking, and at the same time their resilience is inspiring.

One man has been unemployed for two years after two tours in Iraq and 31 years of IT experience. He developed huge infrastructure projects in war-torn regions of the world, but now he, his wife and his three children are living in a 275 square-foot camper.

Another told me: "I have done everything this country tells you to do — high school, Bachelor's degree, military veteran, started two businesses." But he lost his job after he was diagnosed with cancer and he's getting no response from the hundreds of resumes he sends out.

Still another man has been unemployed for 13 months, despite a master's in engineering and 12 years as an Army officer. Now he's dipping into his retirement savings just to get by.

Then there was the woman, a veteran and attorney living from here in Washington, who is selling baked goods to help support herself. She's been out of work so long that her credit has suffered but — and here's the cruel Catch-22 — now employers are reluctant to give her a second look because she has bad credit.

It's just unconscionable that so many men and women who've given so much to the nation find themselves on the outer fringes of society, sometimes sleeping in cars or on the street. That's not America. As President Obama has said: "We're not going to rest until every veteran who has fought for America has a home in America."

Empowering our veterans — giving them the tools they need to lead productive civilian lives — is a matter of the highest national urgency. It's at the heart of America's basic bargain. If you work hard and take responsibility — and who has worked harder and taken more responsibility than our veterans? — you will be rewarded with the chance to succeed.

Our veterans have taken on more than their fair share of sacrifice during tough times in America. Now we need to give them their share of reward and prosperity.

This isn't just a moral imperative; the entire nation will benefit from getting these skilled folks off of the sidelines, back in the game, contributing to our economy. We don't have any human capital to waste. We don't have a single person to spare in America.

So thank you for everything you do to rise to this huge and important challenge. As the Secretary of Labor and the son of a veteran, I'm proud to be your partner in these efforts. Together, we can hold up the nation's end of the bargain with our veterans — to be there for them just as they were for us... to provide them with the opportunities they have earned through their service. Thank you very much