Senate debates jobless vet bill, but little will be done

Washington — Veterans, especially young ones, suffer from dismal unemployment rates, and Congress wants to help.

Both Democrats and Republicans want to win favor with an important voting bloc — the nation’s 21 million veterans. But legislation attacking veterans’ unemployment isn’t expected to pass in Congress’ shortened work period before November’s general election.

Nevertheless, on Tuesday — the 11th anniversary of 9/11– the Senate voted 95-1 on a procedural vote to move forward on a bill that would establish a job corps for veterans. The full Senate still needs to act on the bill, however, as does the House, which is expected to have a short session this month.

Proposed by President Obama, the Veterans Job Corps Act would dedicate $1 billion over five years for the hiring of veterans as police officers and firefighters and for employing others to restore and protect public lands.

Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., both voted for the bill.

“We should fight as hard for veterans as they’ve fought for us — and keep faith with them in providing good jobs and skill training,” Blumenthal said.

But the jobs bill is likely to fall victim to lawmakers’ desire to return to their states and districts to campaign for re-election as soon as possible. The House is planning to be in session just through next week, and there is a chance they will not convene in October. If the House shortens its time on Capitol Hill, the Senate will follow suit.

Congress has approved tax breaks for businesses that hire vets and expanded and extended education and training benefits — especially to members of the National Guard — in the hopes of improving their hiring potential.

According to National Guard Bureau spokesman Major Jamie Davis, about 25 percent of returning vets in Connecticut have applied for veterans’ tuition assistance.

“Soldiers and airmen get briefed before, during and after deployments as to what benefits they are eligible for,” he said. “Whether or not they choose to use education benefits is their own decision, but they are provided ample opportunity to learn as to what they are entitled to.”

Despite Congress’ efforts, the jobless rate among veterans is stubbornly high, especially for the younger veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, young male veterans between the ages of 18 and 24 who served in the latest gulf war have an unemployment rate of 29.1 percent. That’s significantly higher than the unemployment rate of young male nonveterans, which is 17.6 percent, and that of the nation as a whole, 8.1 percent.

Many Connecticut veterans are members of the National Guard. There are about 5,000 guardsmen in the state, and most have been deployed in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, some several times.

There are only about 400 Connecticut guardsmen deployed overseas now, according to Connecticut National Guard spokesman Col. John Whitford.

That means most Connecticut guardsmen are transitioning back to civilian life as the war in Iraq has ended and the one in Afghanistan winds down. That may be tough for many of those veterans because guardsmen and reservists suffer from even higher unemployment rates than other returning troops.

Ted Daywalt, CEO and president of VetJobs in Marietta, Ga., said a reason for this is the repeated call-ups of guardsmen and reservists that can disrupt a workforce. This is exacerbated by a federal law that requires employers to hold a job open for a deployed guardsman or reservist.

In testimony before Congress earlier this year, Daywalt said the burden of hiring a citizen soldier falls harder on smaller- and medium-sized companies.

“The message is they want to hire veterans,” he said, “but they cannot go broke supporting their National Guard employees.”

Concerns about post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by many returning troops also make employers wary of hiring veterans.

But a major obstacle to employment, especially among younger veterans, is that they signed up upon graduation from high school and have little work experience or higher education.

Moe Armstrong, a Vietnam War veteran in New Haven, helps some through a program called “Vet to Vet.”

He said older vets seek out organizations like his, but younger ones don’t.

“The young guys are living on the edge, staying at their friend’s place, but they’re not seeking help,” Armstrong said. “When we came back from war, there weren’t all these programs. But now there are, and young vets are ignoring them.”

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, has a different view, arguing that some efforts to help veterans are succeeding.

Courtney attended a job fair for veterans in Niantic last week. He said that some large Connecticut employers who attended the jobs fair –including Electric Boat, ESPN, Dominion Energy and Mohegan Sun — are eager to hire vets.

“The interest level is very high,” Courtney said. “The veteran tax break is a great incentive.”

But the lawmaker conceded that veterans are “going to be in a transition period” that includes joblessness as they return home from war.