Being a veteran in the civil service is still a big deal.
But not as much as it was, say from the 1940s — World War II, if you slept through American history — until last year.
And if your agency undergoes layoffs this year, being a veteran won’t offer the same job protection as it did just a few months ago.
Although Uncle Sam is a major employer of veterans compared to many private-sector operations —the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments to name a couple — the percentage of Americans with military service, or even a link to the military, may be at an all-time low. Or at least since before the Civil War. Most members of Congress, once a veterans club (with members like Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon), have not served in the military. Nor did Presidents Trump, Obama or Clinton.
Twenty years ago many of us, or our friends, relatives or office mates either were in the military, were veterans or had family members who served in the Army, Navy, Air Force or the Marine Corps or Coast Guard. Today we honor vets in a different way: When we encounter people in uniform at an airport some of us thank them for their service. Maybe even pick up their check at an airport restaurant. At the ballpark, we cheer them when they are introduced at half-time or during the seventh-inning stretch. But for the most part, for many of us most of the time, veterans are pretty much out of sight, out of mind. Especially in Congress.
The National Defense Authorization Act Congress passed last fall makes subtle but significant changes in the rights of veterans in the federal civil service. Although they apply only to the Defense Department, that’s a big deal. DoD represents nearly half of the federal civilian workforce, and when it gets a cold, other federal agencies eventually sneeze. Defense was the first place to authorize buyouts ($25,000 payments) during the Clinton administration. Other agencies followed suit. Now Defense has the authority to raise those buyouts to $40,000. Other agencies will probably ask for it too. And get it.
With cutbacks and layoffs in government a distinct possibility, the NDAA demotion of veterans preference, which Congress downplayed while it was in the works, could be significant when/if Defense (and eventually other agencies) start downsizing via the always nasty RIF (reduction in force) procedure. Before the NDAA made the change, Defense civilians caught up in a RIF were protected by tenure. Being a military veteran (veterans preference) was the second layer of protection followed by length of service, and last but not quit least, their performance rating. But that was then. This is now.
In the next round of DoD RIFs or downsizing, the pecking order will be performance, tenure group, average score, then veterans preference. Downgrading VP to fourth place is a fairly big deal. Especially when we are depending on an all-professional, downsized military where many, many people have three, four and even five tours of duty in Iraq, Afghanistan and other not so well-known hot spots in Africa.
Nobody faults performance as a key element of any job. All things being equal, the people who get the best marks are often the best for the job. The kind of people you don’t want to lose in a silly old RIF. But there is a difference between performance and veterans preference. Performance ratings, as most long-time civil servants know, can by hyped and padded. The boss likes you to get top marks. Maybe a bonus. Even a jury of your peers would rate you much, much lower. With vets preference, you were either in or out. Easy to check. Easy to prove.
So now we wait. Wait to see if there is a RIF in the Defense establishment and wait to see if the new upgraded performance-over-vets preference protection is extended to other agencies.
Meantime, if there is a downsizing at Defense, as the vets go out the door, be sure to thank them for their service. It’ll mean a lot!